SpaceX passed another important milestone, on their route to reusability, with the successful launch of the CRS-11 Dragon mission to the International Space Station.
The Dragon capsule used for this launch previously flew to the ISS on the CRS-4 mission in September 2014 and following some refurbishment and re-certification was approved for this current mission. With this launch, SpaceX became the first commercial company to send a previously flown capsule to orbit.
This was the 7th launch this year and 5th landing for SpaceX and the cadence doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon with several more launches scheduled for June including one from Vandenburg.
SpaceX continued its busy launch campaign today with the successful delivery to orbit of the Inmarsat-5 F4 communications satellite.
The payload was originally planned to be launched using the companies Falcon Heavy Rocket due to the weight of the satellite. However, with the upgrades to the Falcon 9 over the years it is was powerful enough to perform the launch in expendable mode.
To date this is the heaviest payload SpaceX has ever launched, this meant that SpaceX didn’t attempt a landing instead letting the first stage splash down in the Atlantic Ocean after separation. SpaceX has another launch planned for June 1st to deliver another Dragon vehicle to the International Space Station.
This week NASA announced that they had completed the study requested by the Trump administration who had requested that they look into add crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA concluded that it would cost an additional $600-900 million to do this and would delay the first flight until sometime in 2020. Due to this, the White House decided to leave the EM-1 mission as an uncrewed mission.
During the same press conference, NASA announced that the first launch of SLS would be delayed anyway due to several factors including damage sustained at the Michoud facility earlier in the year by a tornado that touched down. The launch which has already been delayed several times was previously set for November 2018 and will now be delayed to some time in 2019. However, at present, they haven’t determined an exact date and will be reporting back in the next couple of weeks.
During the Q&A time after it was determined that there would most likely be an impact on the EM-2 mission too as NASA needs approximately 33 months to modify the Launch Platform for the taller version of SLS due to the introduction of the Exploration Upper Stage which is approximately 40 feet taller than the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) flying on EM-1.
NASA has been developing a replacement for the Space Transport System (STS) since the 2005 NASA Authorization act and to date has only performed two launches related to the programs. NASA started work on the Constellation program which proposed the development of two rockets Ares I and V, a crew capsule Orion and several other components. This program ran until 2010, during which time they launched a single Ares 1 rocket. The Ares 1 basically consisted of a Solid Rocket Booster derived from the boosters used by the space shuttle. While this launch was successful nothing further came from the program.
In 2010 the program was canceled and morphed into the Space Launch System which proposed a single rocket capable of launching the Orion capsule beyond Low Earth Orbit. Since then there has only been one launch related to the program in 2014 when a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the Orion capsule to orbit for a 4-hour 24-minute mission to test the vehicle’s heat shield. This was also a successful mission with the capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
To date, NASA has spent approximately $9 billion on Constellation and another $15+ billion on SLS. From an investment north of $24 billion dollars only having two launches equals $12 billion each. With these additional delays more and more money is being poured into the program and while NASA recently announced plans for more missions for SLS there is no guarantee that the program won’t be canceled especially if there any further delays.
Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer completed a 4 hours, 13 minute spacewalk successfully today, this was the 200th at the International Space Station.
The spacewalk which was shortened due to an issue with a Service and Cooling Umbilical hose used to provide power and consumables to the spacesuits while inside of the station, this resulted in both Astronauts having to share one reducing the overall battery time they had available.
However, despite this, they were able to complete the following tasks:-
This morning SpaceX completed another important milestone in their history as they launched the first National Reconnaissance Office Payload the NROL-76 satellite. As with all NROL launches the exact details of the payload and its final orbit were not released however Elon Musk tweeted that Launch and Landing of the payload were good if we get more information will update. SpaceX once again brought the first stage back for a landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Landing Zone One. As SpaceX was not allowed to show the second stage on the live stream they instead focused on the landing and returned absolutely amazing views of the stage as it returned to Earth, see the second video below.
With this launch, SpaceX has now broken the monopoly that United Launch Alliance had on NROL launches paving the way for more competition for future launches.
The launch was originally scheduled for Sunday 30th April but was scrubbed in the last few seconds due to a first stage sensor issue.
This was the fifth launch for SpaceX this year and the fourth landing, since the introduction of the Falcon 9 they have launched 33 times with one failure in 2015 and landed ten times, six of those on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships. SpaceX also suffered a failure during tanking operations for a Static Fire test, in both cases, they determined the most likely cause of the issue and came back stronger.
SpaceX has several more milestones they hope to achieve this year including the resumption of flights from CCAFS Launch Complex 40, the launch of the first Falcon Heavy, as well as the launch of the first Crewed Dragon vehicle.
Following a smooth flight, Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA Astronaut Jack Fischer completed their four orbit chase of the International Space Station (ISS) and docked at 9:18 AM EDT. Once the leak checks had been completed the hatches were opened, at 11:05 AM EDT, between the two vehicles allowing them to float into the station to begin their time on the station.
Another space station launch occurred today with the Chinese launch of Tianzhou-1. Carried to orbit by the countries Long March 7 rocket the cargo vehicle is due to perform an automated docking with the Chinese space station Tiangong-2. The station which has been orbiting since 15th September 2016 is currently unmanned, however, a crew did say on board for 30 days in November 2016.
This was the second launch of the Long March 7 rocket and was the largest payload ever launched by China at 13 metric tons.
One of the tests that the Tianzhou will be performing is transfer of fuel to the station, this hasn’t been tried before and will allow them to keep the station in orbit longer by using the control thrusters on the station to change orbit as needed.
Future plans for the station are not clear at the moment, however, if the Tianzhou-1 is successful it could lead to other crewed launches in the future to utilize whatever was aboard the cargo vessel.
Over the last year or so the Chinese have been a lot more open about their launches including live streaming, including with English commentators.
At 3:13 AM EDT today the Soyuz MS-04 was launched from Baikonur to begin a four orbit, six hour journey to dock with the International Space Station (ISS).
For the first time since October 2005, the vehicle was only carrying two crew members instead of the typical three. This is due to a change made by Russian to switch to only having two crew members on board ISS.
This morning at 11:14 AM EDT United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched another Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft towards the International Space Station (ISS). This was the third Cygnus that ULA has launched for Orbital and at the present time the last.
Named after the late John Glenn, former Astronaut and US Senator who passed away last December. The launch was delayed several times to allow ULA time to address some issues with the launch vehicle and pad, and then to accommodate the hectic ISS schedule. The vehicle is carrying 3,459 kg (7,626 lb) of cargo to the space station and will spend at least 80 days at the station before being released. After it is successfully completed its mission another of the Saffire experiments will be performed, where a controlled fire will lite. Once that is complete the vehicle will burn up in the atmosphere.
The countdown proceeded smoothly this morning with an on-time launch, which concluded when the Cygnus spacecraft was delivered to orbit.
This was ULA’s 71st Atlas V, 36th 401 config, 4th launch of 2017 and 119th consecutive successful launch keeping their perfect 100% record.
As a side note, this was the last launch for NASA PAO George Diller who has been the voice of NASA for many launches in the past. We hope that he has a great and long retirement and will miss hearing his commentary.