My first live launch – SpaceX CRS-15

Today my family and I were able to see our first live rocket launch with the successful liftoff of the Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon Spacecraft to orbit for SpaceX’s CRS-15 mission to the International Space Station.

Originally the plan was to get up a 2 in the morning and drive from Davenport, FL to Titusville, FL to watch the launch, however, my wife decided that we should stay in Titusville on Thursday night so that we only needed to drive a few minutes to get a location to view the launch.

We decided to watch from nearby the Max Brewer Bridge as there was plenty of available space along the road.  While we waited I attempted to take some pictures of the Vehicle Assembly Building which was directly across the water from where we stood, however the Nikon D50 camera that we currently own wasn’t able to handle it well.  Thankfully once the rocket actually launched I was able to get some pictures on the camera.  Our kids also had their phones and took some amazing pictures which I have included below.

While I have watched most of the launches online over the years to experience it live for the first time was definetly worth the effort of getting to the launch and I would strongly recommend anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to do so.

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SpaceX Dragon completes CRS-14 mission

SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule completed its CRS-14 mission today with the successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The capsule which was launched on April 2nd and spent 31 days attached to the International Space Station before being loaded with critical experiments and cargo that will now be processed by NASA.

SpaceX launches Dragon on 14th CRS mission

This afternoon SpaceX launched their 14th Dragon mission to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40.

Following a smooth countdown, the nine Merlin 1D engines powered the rocket and its payload to orbit.

This was the 7th launch for SpaceX in 2018, the 52nd Falcon 9 launch and 11th using a Flight Proven booster.  As this was an older Block IV booster SpaceX elected to forgo the landing attempt and instead used the booster to perform testing before it crashed into the ocean.

This was also the 2nd mission for this Dragon Capsule which had previously flown on the CRS-8 mission in 2016.  Now that the capsule is in orbit and the Solar Array’s have successfully deployed it will begin its journey to the ISS which capture and berthing expected on Wednesday morning.

SpaceX’s Dragon successfully completes CRS-13 mission

The Dragon capsule that was launched late last year completed it’s mission to the International Space Station with a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean today.

In another first, this time for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency the Dragon capsule was released by the robotics engineers on the ground instead of using the Astronauts aboard the station as they have for all the previous visits.

This was the second time the vehicle had visited the station also the second time SpaceX has reused a Dragon capsule.  Approximately 4100 pounds of cargo was returned inside the capsule which will now be handed over to NASA.  Check here for more details on what is being returned.

SpaceX confirmed successful completion of the mission at 10:39 AM EST.

SpaceX Dragon completes visit to ISS

In what looks to become another busy day for SpaceX the Dragon cargo vehicle that spent a month at the station following its successful launch last month was released by the station this morning and completed a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 8:12 EDT.

This was the second mission for this vehicle and clearly shows that SpaceX’s goals of creating reusable rockets and spacecraft have moved another important step forward.

The spacecraft returned 4,100+ lbs of research and other cargo from the station which will now be returned to port before being transported directly to NASA to be offloaded.

At present SpaceX has not said when another flight-proven Dragon will be used however there have been indications that this is under consideration as well as the possibility of using flight-proven Falcon 9 to launch them.

SpaceX vs NASA progress since 2010

In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement

“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program.  Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely.

“These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer.  Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year.  Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.

Full text here

While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

SpaceX

Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.

In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.

SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.

Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017.  There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.

In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS.  They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.

Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS.  In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.

Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9.  Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.

SLS/Orion

To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.

The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion.  This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled.  In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.

Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.

Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket.  In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.

While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once.  The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.

Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.

Summary

In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.

In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system.  Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.

 

Now comes SpaceX’s true test

This morning SpaceX suffered the first failure of their Falcon 9 rocket as it explode two minutes into the CRS-7 mission. Initial data from Elon Musk indicates that an over-pressure event happened on the second stage.

This was the first time since the third flight of Falcon 1 that SpaceX has suffered a mission ending failure, they have had minor issues during launch including loss of engine (this caused a secondary payload to be lost but primary mission was successful) and an issue with Dragon after deployment (which was later resolved).

Since that Falcon 1 failure in August 2008 SpaceX have launched 20 rockets include 18 Falcon 9 vehicles all reaching orbit successfully, quite an achievement for a new launch provider.

The true test of what SpaceX are made of happens now as they review the data from the failure today, what changes they need to make to address the issue, how open they are about the failure and how quickly they turn this around and start launching rockets again. One advantage that SpaceX have over other people as stated by COO Gwynne Shotwell is the fact that they make most of the parts of the rockets so don’t have to seek data from other parties.

While it is sad that this happened on a NASA International Space Station (ISS) launch it is also a blessing in some respects as we are more likely to hear more information about the failure than if it had been for a commercial customer’s launch.

Over the coming days SpaceX will review thousands of pieces of data and any debris that the teams were able to recover to fully determine what happened.

Initial indications show that the Dragon capsule actually survived the initial explosion of the rocket and continued to transmit data afterwards, most likely stopping when it impacted the ocean.  One change that we hope for future flights of Cargo Dragon (just in case) is a way for Mission Control to be able to deploy the chutes during an non-nominal event, this potentially could have allowed Dragon to splashdown safely in the ocean just as a Crewed Vehicle is designed to.

UPDATE – Elon this morning tweeted an update on the investigation

SpaceX loses CRS-7 mission to ISS

CRS7-logoThis morning SpaceX launched their latest mission to the International Space Station, unfortunately during the first stage flight the rocket exploded causing lost of Falcon, Dragon and the cargo it was carrying

 

Among the cargo that Dragon was carrying was the first of two International Docking Adapters for the station which will be used by Boeing and SpaceX to dock their crewed vehicles in the future.  They were also flying the Meteor experiment which was originally launched on the fated Orb-3 mission last year but lost when the rocket exploded.  For further details of the cargo manifest check out this pdf file.

Below are screen grabs of the launch captured from the Webcast

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Dragon Berthed to ISS

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully arrived at the International Space Station this morning completing a two day journey which started with the picture perfect launch on Tuesday.

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti controlled the ISS robotic arm and captured of Dragon at 6:55 am EDT.

Mission control then manoveured the spacecraft to the Berthing which was completed at 9:29 am EDT, leak checks will now be performed before opening on the hatch tomorrow.

Below are images of the capture and berthing from NASA TV.

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Dragon at the International Space Station

Following Saturday’s beautiful launch of the Falcon 9 and two days of rendezvous maneuvers the SpaceX Dragon vehicle arrived at the ISS early this morning. This is the sixth time that Dragon has visited the station, once under the COTS development program and five times under the cargo resupply contract (CRS) awarded to SpaceX.

The spacecraft was grappled by Astronaut Butch Wilmore at 5:54am EST using the station arm, mission control then maneuvered the spacecraft into position to allow the berthing process to be completed, the sixteen bolts were then fastened to create a hard link between the two.  The hatches may be opened later today and the spacecraft it due to stay at the station for the next 29 days before being leave to return critical items back to Earth on 2/10.

Among the 5000+ pounds of cargo delivered by Dragon are Christmas presents and fresh groceries for the crew to enjoy.

The images below were captured from the NASA TV broadcast of the events

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