NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

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Make or break time for NASA’s big bet on commercial space transportation is at last in view. NASA has announced Feb. 7, 2012 as the launch target date for the first attempt by SpaceX to dock the firms Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), pending final safety reviews.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the second of the so-called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flights to be conducted by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a contact with NASA.

Several months ago SpaceX had requested that the objectives of the next two COTS flights, known as COTS 2 and COTS 3, be merged into one very ambitious flight and allow the Dragon vehicle to actually dock at the ISS instead of only accomplishing a rendezvous test on the next flight and waiting until the third COTS flight to carry out the final docking attempt.

The Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about one week and astronauts will unload the cargo. Then the spacecraft will depart, re-enter the Earth atmosphere splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

“The cargo is hundreds of pounds of astronaut provisions,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS
Astronauts can reach it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.”

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle following the final fight with orbiter Atlantis in July 2011 on the STS-135 mission, the US has had absolutely zero capability to launch either supplies or human crews to the massive orbiting complex, which is composed primarily of US components.

In a NASA statement, Gerstenmaier added, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges. As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

SpaceX lofted the COTS 1 flight a year ago on Dec. 8, 2010 and became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX assembled both the Falcon 9 booster rocket and the Dragon cargo vessel from US built components.

An astronaut operating the robot arm aboard the ISS will move Dragon into position at the berthing port where it will be locked in place at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

The new demonstration flight is now dubbed COTS 2/3. The objectives include Dragon safely demonstrating all COTS 2 operations in the vicinity of the ISS by conducting check out procedures and a series of rendezvous operations at a distance of approximately two miles and the ability to abort if necessary.

The European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo vessels carried out a similar series of tests during their respective first flights.

After accomplishing all the rendezvous tasks, Dragon will then receive approval to begin the COTS 3 activities, gradually approaching the ISS from below to within a few meters.

Specially trained astronauts working in the Cupola will then reach out and grapple Dragon with the Station’s robotic arm and then maneuver it carefully into place onto the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node. The operations are expected to take several hours.

The COTS Demo 2/3 Dragon spacecraft at Cape Canaveral. Photo: SpaceX

If successful, the Feb. 7 SpaceX demonstration flight will become the first commercial mission to visit the ISS and vindicate the advocates of commercial space transportation who contend that allowing private companies to compete for contracts to provide cargo delivery services to the ISS will result in dramatically reduced costs and risks and increased efficiencies.

The new commercial paradigm would also thereby allow NASA to focus more of its scarce funds on research activities to come up with the next breakthroughs enabling bolder missions to deep space.

If the flight fails, then the future of the ISS could be in serious jeopardy in the medium to long term because there would not be sufficient alternative launch cargo capacity to maintain the research and living requirements for a full crew complement of six residents aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Feb. 7 represents nothing less than ‘High Stakes on the High Frontier’.

NASA is all about bold objectives in space exploration in both the manned and robotic arenas – and that’s perfectly represented by the agencies huge gamble with the commercial cargo and commercial crew initiatives.

SpaceX Delays Falcon 9 Launch Attempt To Dec. 9

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SpaceX will delay the launch attempt of the Falcon 9 rocket until at least Thursday, Dec. 9. At a press conference today, company president Gwynne Shotwell said a final review of closeout photos this morning found some indications of a potential issue on a second stage nozzle. Reports from journalist Robert Pearlman on Twitter said the Falcon 9 had been lowered from the vertical launch position. And Shotwell said if they have to replace the nozzle, the launch would be no earlier than Friday, Dec. 10.

“During an inspection of final closeout photos they determined there were some indications in a weld joint that they wanted to take some additional steps to look at,” said Shotwell, “and they brought the vehicle down to horizontal. I believe it is back up to vertical now.” When asked for details, Shotwell said “porosity and potential cracking in a weld joint.”

There were some weather concerns for the early to mid part of this week, but the weather improves later in the week, so perhaps the delay was going to happen anyway.

This is the first demonstration launch for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, with a functional Dragon capsule.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he thinks they have a 70% chance of successful first flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon capsule.

Shotwell agreed, saying history predicts SpaceX will likely have a substantial issue to deal with in this test flight.

“Given we got Falcon 9 to orbit on our first test flight, I’d say 70% for this flight, too,” she said.

At the press conference, NASA’s Phil McAlister, from the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, provided some insight into NASA’s thinking on if there were to be substantial problems with any of the COTS test flights. “We expect anomalies and the purpose of a test flight is to find the problems,” he said. “We won’t know until the end of the program if we’ve been completely successful, but to date this has been remarkably successful. Even if we have a bad day on this flight, for example, we expect to move forward. It is not a condition that every test flights be successful. We are committed to learn from each flight. But we would certainly like to have a a successful flight. So far we are on very good track and we will learn a lot from this test flight and move forward regardless of the outcome.”

The key milestones for this flight are a successful launch, separation of the Dragon vehicle from the rocket and successful reentry of Dragon.

No matter the outcome of this flight, SpaceX plans on having next Dragon flight ready by late spring/early summer 2011.

For the future, McAlister also said that he believe competition is very important, and that NASA would like to have at least 2 cargo service companies. “We would like to have routine, cost effective cargo services to LEO by 2020.”

Shotwell said it would be at least two and a half to three years after the cargo program is initiated is the first chance for astronauts to be ferried on board the Dragon capsule.

SpaceX Test Fire Aborted

A static test firing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was cut short as computer systems shut down the first-stage engines before the test was complete. The firing was only going to last two seconds, but the engines ran for 1.1 sec due to high engine chamber pressure, according to SpaceX. Space News reported that engineers are analyzing the data and that a second attempt is likely to occur tomorrow, Dec. 4. This abort occurred just four days before SpaceX is schedule to conduct the maiden launch of its Dragon space capsule on board the medium-class Falcon 9.

This video is from SpaceX’s webcast of the firing and unfortunately is a bit jumpy.

The first-stage firing was part of a dress rehearsal conducted in preparation for the planned Dec. 7 launch, the first of three increasingly complicated flight demonstrations of Falcon 9 and Dragon under the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA.

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In a press release from SpaceX from Dec. 2, the company said the rehearsal would “exercise the countdown processes and end after the engines fire at full power for two seconds, with only the hold-down system restraining the rocket from flight.”

After the test, SpaceX said they would conduct a thorough review of all data as engineers make final preparations for the upcoming launch.

The rockets uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, and the nine Merlin engines generate one million pounds of thrust in vacuum.

The $278 million COTS agreement has SpaceX developing and demonstrating hardware capable of ferrying cargo to and from the International Space Station.

We’ll post more information about the abort as it becomes available.

Dragon Drop Tests and Heat1X-Tycho Brahe Set to Launch – SpacePod 2010.08.24

Home made rockets launched from home made submarines next to dragon wings floating in the ocean on your SpacePod for August 24th, 2010

Before we begin I just wanted to give a shout out to our new viewers on both Space.com and Universe Today. Hopefully you like what you’ll see and you’ll stick around for a while, check out some of our other videos and join us for our live weekly show all about space. For today though, lets start over the Pacific Ocean where SpaceX tested the Dragon’s parachute deployment system on August 12th, 2010.
Continue reading “Dragon Drop Tests and Heat1X-Tycho Brahe Set to Launch – SpacePod 2010.08.24”

Falcon 9 Flight Hardware Arrives at Cape Canaveral

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SpaceX announced Thursday that all flight hardware for the first launch of the Falcon 9 rocket has arrived at the SpaceX launch site, at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which I was able to see earlier this week. The final delivery included the Falcon 9 second stage, which recently completed testing at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX has now initiated full vehicle integration of the 47 meter (154 feet) tall, 3.6 meter (12 feet) diameter rocket. In an upcoming launch, possibly as early as March, SpaceX will test their the cargo- and crew-carrying ability, using a Dragon spacecraft qualification unit. Since SpaceX is poised to figure prominently in the future of human spaceflight, the upcoming test flight is crucial, both for SpaceX and NASA.

“We expect to launch in one to three months after completing full vehicle integration,” said Brian Mosdell, Director of Florida Launch Operations for SpaceX. “Our primary objective is a successful first launch and we are taking whatever time necessary to work through the data to our satisfaction before moving forward.”

Flight hardware for the inaugural launch of Falcon 9 rocket undergoing final integration in the hangar at SpaceX's Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida. Components include: Dragon spacecraft qualification unit (left), second stage with Merlin Vacuum engine (center), first stage with nine Merlin 1C engines (right). Credit: SpaceX

Following full vehicle integration, SpaceX will conduct a static firing to demonstrate flight readiness and confirm operation of ground control systems in preparation for actual launch.
Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), in Cape Canaveral. Credit: Nancy Atkinson

Though designed from the beginning to transport crew, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft will initially be used to transport cargo. Falcon 9 and Dragon were selected by NASA to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) once Shuttle retires. The $1.6B contract represents 12 flights for a minimum of 20 tons to and from the ISS with the first demonstration flights beginning in 2010.

Source: SpaceX