CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A uncrewed SpaceX cargo craft departed America’s Space Coast on Saturday loaded with nearly three tons of supplies for astronauts living and working aboard the International Space Station.
The SpaceX launch marked the first reflight of a Dragon spacecraft, and also set a historic milestone from America’s Spaceport.
A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Pad-39A on June 3 at 5:07:38 p.m. EDT, blazing a trail out over the Atlantic Ocean.
The lift-off marked the 100th rocket launch from the historic launch complex 39-A.
The launch pad was first used fifty years ago this November as the first Saturn V moon rocket launched during the uncrewed Apollo 4 mission. Pad 39-A later supported many notable space flights including Apollo 11’s mission to first land man on the moon in 1969; America’s first space station Skylab in 1973; the first space shuttle flight in 1981 and 81 subsequent shuttle flights; and today, SpaceX launches.
Signed in April 2014 by CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX has an exclusive twenty-year lease with NASA to use 39A for both uncrewed launches, and future crewed missions aimed at sending astronauts to the space station and Mars. A Dragon 2 spacecraft will be used for crewed flights to the station beginning in summer of 2018.
Nine minutes following its lift-off, the Falcon’s first stage touched down for the fifth time at Cape Canaveral AFS. It’s successful return may see it’s reflight on a future SpaceX launch in 2019.
Dragon arrived in a preliminary orbit ten minutes following launch, and began to deploy its twin solar arrays. In the days that follow, the cargo craft will begin a series of thruster jet firings to help reach the space station’s orbit.
Three days following Dragon’s Saturday launch, it will be steered by controllers on the ground to close within reach of the space station’s 55-foot long Canada-built arm. Orbiting 255 miles above, astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer have trained this week with the computer software and the station’s robotic arm which will be used to snare Dragon following the craft’s rendezvous and approach. Whitson and Fischer are expected to snare the Dragon at about 10:00 a.m. on June 5. It will then take about two hours to slowly guide the spacecraft in to dock with the station’s docking port via ground commands.
“The flight will deliver investigations and facilities that study neutron stars, osteoporosis, solar panels, tools for Earth-observation, and more,” said Jenny Howard of International Space Station Program Science Office at the Johnson Space Center. Dragon’s unpressurized cargo hold will carry the solar panels and equipment planned for installation on the outside of the station.
The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer payload will study the extraordinary physics of several neutron stars as scientists and astronomers study their nature and behavior.
“NICER will provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars, objects containing ultra-dense matter at the threshold of collapse into black holes,” explained NASA spokesperson Clare Skelly from the control room at Goddard Space Flight Center. “NICER will also test — for the first time in space — technology that uses pulsars as navigation beacons.”
In addition, Dragon will deliver equipment and science materials to support over 250 science and research investigations aboard the orbiting laboratory.
Dragon is expected to undock from the space station on July 2, and return to Earth hours later loaded with completed science research, used cargo and trash for a planned splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.
(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)