SpaceX Launches 1st Private Rocket from Historic NASA Pad — Then Sticks a Landing


After launching the CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft, the first stage of the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket attempted and succeeded an experimental landing at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on 19th of February, 2017.
By Sarah Lewin, Staff Writer | February 19, 2017 10:33am ET

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —  SpaceX has launched the first private rocket from the same historic site that saw some of NASA's greatest space missions, then landed a booster nearby in a resounding success.

The California-based company's Falcon 9 rocket launched a robotic Dragon cargo capsule toward the International Space Station today (Feb. 19) at 9:39 a.m. EST (1439 GMT) from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center — the same pad that once hosted Apollo moon missions and space shuttle launches.

"Liftoff of the Falcon 9 to the space station on the first commercial launch from Kennedy Space Center's historic Pad 39a!" said NASA commentator George Diller.

 A launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed just 13 seconds before liftoff out of caution, due to an unexpected reading from the rocket's second stage.

Today's launch had action in the downward direction as well: The Falcon 9's first stage came back to Earth successfully, landing a few miles from the Florida launch site about 8 minutes after liftoff as planned. It was SpaceX's first daytime landing at the site, called Landing Zone 1, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"Baby came back," Space CEO Elon Musk wrote on Instagram after the successful landing.  

 The Falcon 9's first and second stages separated about 2.5 minutes into today's launch. As the first stage flew back for its touchdown — a secondary mission objective — the second stage continued to power Dragon to orbit. The capsule got there safely and, about 11 minutes after liftoff, successfully deployed its solar arrays and began its two-day journey to the station.

When Dragon arrives at the orbiting lab on Tuesday morning (Feb. 21), French astronaut Thomas Pesquet will grapple the spacecraft using the Canadarm2 robotic arm, assisted by NASA astronaut (and station commander) Shane Kimbrough. Both spaceflyers will be looking out from the station's cupola as they do this work.

 NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will monitor the spacecraft's approach. Once Dragon is grabbed, ground control will take charge and mate the spacecraft to the station.

Cargo missions always carry an assortment of supplies, tools and equipment for science experiments, but this one is particularly science-focused, NASA officials said.

"Consumable-wise, we're in great shape; we've got well above our reserve levels for food and water, so we've really dedicated this Dragon mission to the research," Dan Hartman, deputy manager for the International Space Station (ISS) program, said during a briefing Friday (Feb. 17). "It's chock-full, and the crew's really going to enjoy the science we're getting ready to bring out." [How SpaceX's Dragon Space Capsule Works (Infographic)]

The research and hardware sent to the station represents the work of about 800 scientists around the world, NASA officials said — and the space station crew will get to work right away unloading and running those experiments. Dragon is packed with almost 5,500 lbs. (2,500 kg) of cargo in all, and will return to Earth after 29 days carrying nearly 5,000 lbs. (2,300 kg) back.

Some space station additions are traveling in the unpressurized "trunk" of the spacecraft: SAGE-III, an Earth-monitoring tool that will look for ozone in the atmosphere, and a Space Test Program payload including the Lightning Imaging Sensor, which will track lightning worldwide, and Raven, which will collect data to help future spacecraft rendezvous autonomously.

Starting on the second day after Dragon's arrival, those experiments will be removed and installed on the station using robotic arm attachments; the process could run for about 15 or 16 days straight, Hartman said. Three payloads no longer in use will head back down to Earth in Dragon's trunk.

The science investigations riding in the pressurized part of the spacecraft — more than 1,600 lbs. (730 kg) of them — include tests of how "superbug" MRSA bacteria adapt in space, an antibody crystallization project, a stem-cell-growing experiment, a mouse study investigating how wounds heal in space and many projects designed by students. There are also several physical sciences investigations, including one that tests how metal alloys solidify in space, NASA officials said.

 "You can see that this particular SpaceX launch is going to keep our crew busy; it keeps us busy every day," Tara Ruttley, associate scientist for the ISS program, said during the Friday briefing. "We've never seen such a platform like this enabled on orbit for science."

Kimbrough, Whitson and Pesquet — as well as their Russian cosmonaut crewmates, Oleg Novitskiy, Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov — will get some more robotic visitors soon. A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft is scheduled to launch to the station Feb. 22, and a Cygnus supply spacecraft built by Virginia-based aerospace company Orbital ATK will lift off March 19, if everything goes according to plan.

Today's launch kicked off SpaceX's 10th cargo mission to the space station, which the company flies under a contract with NASA. Eight of the previous nine missions were successful; the failure came in June 2015, when a Falcon 9 broke apart less than three minutes after liftoff.

This was SpaceX's second launch of 2017, and the second liftoff for the company since a Falcon 9 exploded on the pad during a routine pre-launch test on Sept. 1, 2016. That mishap destroyed the rocket and its payload, the $200 million Amos-6 satellite.

SpaceX has now pulled off eight rocket landings — three of them at Landing Zone 1 and five on autonomous "drone ships" stationed in the ocean. These touchdowns are part of the company's effort to develop reusable rockets, a technology that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said could revolutionize spaceflight.

Launch Complex 39A hosted the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, as well as most of the other crewed spaceflights in the Apollo program and many space shuttle flights. Before today, the pad's last launch was the final liftoff of the space shuttle program, which occurred in July 2011. SpaceX signed a 20-year lease for the pad in 2014.


SpaceX Dragon Capsule Aborts Cargo Delivery to Space Station

By Tariq Malik, Managing Editor | February 22, 2017 05:12am ET

 A SpaceX Dragon cargo ship packed with nearly three tons of supplies aborted its rendezvous to the International Space Station early Wednesday (Feb. 22) due to a navigation software glitch, NASA officials said. The supply ship will now aim for a Thursday arrival at the station.

The unpiloted Dragon capsule aborted its approach to the space station at 3:25 a.m. EST (0825 GMT) when it detected an incorrect value in the relative global positioning system software used to pinpoint its place in the sky with the orbiting lab, NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary. The spacecraft was about 1,200 meters — just over seven-tenths of a mile — from the station when the glitch occurred, he added.

At no point were the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station in any danger, Navias said.

"Dragon itself is in excellent shape," Navias said. "It did exactly what it was designed to do, breaking out of a rendezvous approach when it saw an incorrect value." [In Photos: SpaceX's Dragon Launch to Space Station]

Navias said the navigation software issue can be corrected by SpaceX engineers, allowing Dragon to deliver its 5,500 lbs. (2,500 kilograms) of supplies to the space station's crew early Thursday. Dragon launched toward the space station Sunday (Feb. 19) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off from NASA's historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, a first for the Hawthorne, Calif.-based spaceflight company. The mission is SpaceX's tenth cargo delivery flight for NASA.

 "Dragon is in good health and will make another rendezvous attempt with the @Space_Station Thursday morning," SpaceX representatives wrote in a Twitter post. The cargo ship is following a preplanned "race track" path that will bring it back in range for a docking tomorrow, NASA officials said.

The 24-hour delay will not adversely impact any of the science or supplies aboard Dragon, Navias said. The science gear on the spacecraft includes several biological experiments.

Dragon is now scheduled to arrive at the space station and be captured by a robotic arm at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT) on Thursday. NASA will broadcast the rendezvous on NASA TV beginning at 4 a.m. EST (0900 GMT), and you can watch that Dragon arrival webcast here, courtesy of NASA. A follow-up broadcast at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) will cover Dragon's attachment to the station's Earth-facing Harmony module.

 Meanwhile, another cargo ship — this one from Russia —is making its way to the International Space Station.  

The automated Progress 66 resupply ship launched toward the station early Wednesday at 12:58 a.m. EST (0558 GMT), just hours ahead of SpaceX's planned Dragon arrival. A Russian Soyuz rocket launched the cargo ship from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Progress 66 is packed with 3 more tons of supplies for the space station's six-person crew. It is Russia's first Progress supply ship to fly since the loss of the Progress 65 cargo ship shortly after its launch on Dec. 1, 2016.

Progress 66 will arrive at the space station on Friday (Feb. 24) at 3:34 a.m. EST (2034 GMT). NASA's live coverage of that event will begin at 2:45 a.m. EST (0745 GMT).

Editor's note: This story was updated at 6:35 a.m. ET to correct the docking date for Russia's Progress 66. It is Friday, Feb. 24, not Feb. 23.