SpaceX Creates New Record by Launching Used Dragon atop Used Falcon

In a groundbreaking first, SpaceX launches a previously used Falcon rocket carrying a used spacecraft (Dragon) with a NASA payload – mission CRS-13

SpaceX Creates New Record by Launching Used Dragon atop Used Falcon

SpaceX created history on Friday (Dec 15) when it launched its recycled Dragon spacecraft, carrying a 4,800-pound resupply payload for the International Space Station (ISS), atop its previously used Falcon 9 rocket, taking the company another step closer, and a big one at that, to its goal of achieving total re-usability.

Originally scheduled for a Dec 12 launch, the two-stage Falcon 9 lifted off at 10:36 am EST, on Friday, from SpaceX’s newly refurbished SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida for NASA’s CRS-13 resupply mission to the ISS.

Two and a half minutes (approx) into the flight, the first stage booster detached for its journey back to Earth, while the second stage Dragon continued on its NASA mission to the ISS.

In less than eight minutes after lift-off, the first stage Falcon 9 booster made a picture-perfect controlled landing on LZ-1 at the Cape Canaveral Base for retrieval and potential reuse for a third mission.

The second stage Dragon is expected to reach the ISS on Sunday, where the robotic arm of the ISS will grab it for docking and berthing.

The Dragon was previously used back in April 2015 for one of NASA’s missions to the orbiting space station, whereas the Falcon 9 first stage booster was used for the agency’s CRS-11 mission, in June 2017, to launch a different Dragon toward the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Dragon cargo ship filled with NASA supplies separates from its Falcon 9 rocket upper stage after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2017. It is the Dragon's second delivery trip to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship filled with NASA supplies separates from its Falcon 9 rocket upper stage after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2017. It is the Dragon’s second delivery trip to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA TV

Not in the history of all its launches has Space X used a previously-flown spacecraft on a previously-flown rocket. It is also the first time, ever, that Elon Musk’s spaceflight company has used a recycled rocket for a NASA mission

The space agency gave its nod to the use of a pre-flown rocket for its CRS-13 supply mission to the ISS, only after extensive reviews of the risks involved, NASA officials confirmed.

“We’re very comfortable that the risk posture on this vehicle is not significantly greater than [on] a new booster,” NASA’s ISS program manager Kirk Shireman said in a pre-launch briefing on Dec 11, a day before the originally scheduled launch, which was aborted for additional “ground system checks” and further checks of the second stage fuel system. “We think of it as equivalent risk.”

SpaceX has had a superlative 2017 with 17 launches to its credit and a potential 18th launch scheduled for December 22 – more than any other private-sector spaceflight company in the world.

Also, Friday’s recovery of the Falcon 9 booster makes it the 20th successful first stage recovery for SpaceX, with 14 booster retrievals this year alone.

The first ever successful launch and safe return and retrieval of the booster, after mission accomplished, happened for SpaceX in December 2015.

The most significant and triumphant aspect of the mission for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and his team was the safe return and retrieval of the booster, which had never happened before for SpaceX – although Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin had successfully achieved the feat (of safe return and retrieval) earlier with its “New Shepard” mission.

After that momentous day, SpaceX achieved six successful launches and booster retrievals until the company suffered a major setback in September 2016, when a Falcon 9 rocket together with its payload exploded, forcing the company to schedule a re-launch for January 2017.

Of course, an inquiry into the disaster was initiated and SpaceX investigators were able to narrow down the cause to a malfunction of one of three helium tanks inside the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank, as was reported by Associated Press (AP).

“SpaceX announced this month that investigators concluded the accident involved a failure of one of three helium tanks inside the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank,” AP had reported then.

However, true to their promise of a re-launch in January 2017, Elon Musk and the SpaceX team achieved their seventh successful launch and booster retrieval on January 14, 2017, the first in a series of 17 successful launches this year, with one more scheduled for December 22.

It must be mentioned that Friday’s launch (CRS-13) was the13th of a 20-mission contract that SpaceX has signed with NASA for $1.6 billion.

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