Nearly five years after the final space shuttle mission blasted off and forty four years since the last humans left Earth to set foot on the Moon, Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A was again the focus of a historic event when the first SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off today on its first launch from KSC. Beginning its 10th mission to ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, the launch of Falcon 9 opens up a new era for NASA’s most well-known launch pad.
Soaring through cloudy, sometimes rainy, skies threatened to delay the launch a second day after a technical glitch scrubbed yesterday’s launch attempt in the last seconds of the countdown. With enough clearing by the opening of the launch window, Falcon 9 blasted off on time at 9:33 and within seconds, disappeared into the clouds, leaving behind a thundering roar from its nine Merlin 1D engines.
“It was really awesome to see 39-A roar back to life for the first time since the shuttle era,” said Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s Dragon mission management director.
The rocket’s ascent to orbit was by all accounts, nominal, coming nearly 6 months after the last Space Coast Falcon 9 was destroyed in a massive launch pad explosion that also devastated its other East Coast launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Following first stage separation and perfect second stage performance, the Dragon capsule, laden with supplies for the space station, separated, deployed its solar arrays and began the three-day chase to catch up and rendezvous with ISS.
Meanwhile, the Falcon’s first stage pitched itself around, re-lit its engines and headed back to Cape Canaveral. Diving out of the low clouds and heralded by twin sonic booms, the rocket successfully completed its first daytime landing at Landing Zone 1.
“Baby came back,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared on Instagram along with a photo of Falcon 9 just before touchdown.
A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on
Today’s landing was the third at Landing Zone 1 and the 8th successful first stage landing overall for SpaceX.
Over the next two days, Dragon will perform a series of maneuvers to put it on course to reach the International Space Station early Wednesday morning.
Astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA and Shane Kimbrough of NASA will use the space station’s robotic arm to capture Dragon when it arrives at ISS. A few hours later, they will attach the spacecraft to a berthing port on the U.S. segment of the station. Later, they will begin to unload approximately 5,500 pounds of supplies and science experiments.
Research materials flying inside the Dragon’s pressurized area include a crystal growth experiment that will crystallize a monoclonal antibody that is undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of immunological diseases. Growing the crystal in space will allow it develop more than it could on Earth where gravity causes crystals to collapse on themselves. Preserving these antibodies in crystals allows researchers a glimpse into how the biological molecules are arranged, which can provide new information about how they work in the body. So far, Earth-grown crystalline suspensions of monoclonal antibodies have proven to be too low-quality to fully model.
Better defining how some bacteria become drug-resistant is the focus of another experiment that aims to develop medicines that counter the resistance. Stem cells like those used to treat strokes and other occurrences also will be studied using experiment supplies brought up on this flight.
The equipment aboard the Dragon includes a major instrument that will survey Earth’s upper atmosphere in a continuation of one of NASA’s longest-running Earth-observing programs. Called SAGE III for Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment, the instrument examines the levels of ozone, aerosols, nitrogen dioxide and water vapor in the stratosphere and troposphere high above Earth. It is the latest version of an experiment that began in 1979 and has created a multi-decade record of measurements. The 2,200-pound instrument will be connected to the outside of the station to make daily observations for several years.
Dragon will remain at ISS for approximately one month before it departs the station in late March for a re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific loaded with completed experiments and other payloads requiring a soft landing – a capability only SpaceX’s Dragon offers.
Enduring a six month down-time while still recovering from the loss of the CRS-7 mission in 2015, SpaceX will have to ramp up their launch pace rapidly this year to fly out a growing backlog of missions for both commercial customers and NASA. All this will take place while the company prepares for the first launch of Falcon Heavy in late summer and the first test flights of the crewed version of Dragon. Under NASA’s Commercial Crew contract, SpaceX must meet obligations in 2018 and 2019 to begin transporting NASA astronauts to ISS and help free the agency from dependency on Russia’s Soyuz for crew transport to space.
For the next several months, all Falcon 9 launches from Florida will occur at LC-39A while SLC-40 undergoes what was described by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell as a rebuild. On the manifest for March are the EchoStar 23 and SES-10 mission. This month, or April, could also see the first launch of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage.
(Matthew Travis / Zero-G News)
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