SpaceX Continues To Make History

SpaceX is no stranger to making commercial spaceflight history. They were the first private corporation to launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, send a re-supply spacecraft to the International Space Station, and to land their first-stage rockets back on Earth (for potential re-use), among other milestones. They’re also on the cusp of providing transportation services for International Space Station crew members.

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017 – Source: SpaceX

On February 19, 2017, SpaceX accomplished another major feat: They became the first private company to launch from the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Pad 39A

SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to lease space and operate out of Kennedy Space Center when, in 2014, they signed a 20-year lease for the historic Launch Pad 39A. It was from this launch pad that Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on our lunar neighbor. It also hosted the first Space Shuttle mission, as well as some 90 others. Now, and for at least the next two decades, it’s in the hands of SpaceX, further cementing the foothold that the private sector has made in the space program.

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches – Source: Public Domain and SpaceX

Launch and Landing

At 9:39am EST, on February 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited and thundered into the clouds. The rocket was topped with the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) worth of cargo destined for the International Space Station. Dragon arrived and successfully docked with the ISS a couple of days following launch.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA astrophysicist and contributor to myriad space documentary programs, was at Sunday’s launch and graciously shared her experience with me. “Launches are always wonderfully, viscerally exciting,” she said. “The Falcon 9 has a wonderful, big, booming sound, similar to an Atlas, and it puts on a great fireworks show.”

But that wasn’t the only show in store for the lucky spectators in Florida that day. After shoving Dragon into orbit, the Falcon first stage began its 100-kilometer return trip back to Earth. In fewer than 10 minutes following lift-off, the first stage rocket re-emerged through the clouds and landed at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles away from the launch pad. Thaller described the period of suspense in between the launch and the Falcon landing, and said that in some ways there was more anticipation for the landing than there was for the launch.

[N]othing quite prepares you for what happens 7 minutes later, just as the adrenaline is wearing off. Silently, at first, this 230-foot first stage turns around and comes down out of the sky. Smoothly, surreally, a tower the size of a 15 story building just comes and sets itself down. Only once it’s down do you hear the double pop of a sonic boom. It sort of turns your stomach. Things that big are not supposed to just come out of the sky and land. It’s awesome.

Awesome, indeed. See for yourself:

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons that showed rockets landing on various planets. The rockets would turn themselves around and gently land engine-side down. I would always exclaim, “That’s not how rockets work! They burn up, or have parachutes attached and they land in the ocean! How silly.”

Yet, here we are.

I’ve often been jealous about being born too late to experience the race to the Moon. I’ve been somewhat depressed since watching the last Shuttle mission touch down in 2011. But when I take a step back and look at what is occurring today and what we have to look forward to, I can’t help but recognize what a wonderful time it is to be alive.

You can watch the full webcast of the launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

SpaceX Launches Itself Towards History

SpaceX COTS 2 Mission Patch

SpaceX COTS 2 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Early Tuesday (5/22) morning, commercial spaceflight took an important step forward which, if everything goes as planned, will result in a historic bookmark in world history tomorrow morning. On May 22nd, 2012, at 3:44am (EST), the private aerospace company, SpaceX, became the first private organization to launch a space capsule filled with supplies on an intercept-course with the International Space Station. If everything checks out, NASA will give SpaceX the go-ahead to dock with the ISS. This first docking maneuver will be accomplished with the aid of the ISS’s robotic arm, which will grab a hold of the Dragon capsule and precisely mate it with the ISS. Subsequent missions will dock solely under Dragon’s power.

Based on my timezone and preferences, the launch was too early to wake up for, yet too late to stay up for. I set an alarm and woke up to watch the show. I watched the final couple of minutes of countdown before seeing that Falcon rocket gracefully take flight towards the stars. The launch feed was quite unlike the typical ones you’ll see coming out of NASA’s mission control. Where NASA’s controllers and announcers stoically announce data and rarely deviate from “strictly-business”, joy was ubiquitous following the Falcon launch and that emotion turned into sheer jubilation when the Dragon capsule separated from the Falcon and deployed its solar arrays.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, described the scene inside SpaceX headquarters:

 “People have really given it their all. We had most of the company gathered around SpaceX Mission Control. They are seeing the fruits of their labor and wondering if it is going to work. There is so much hope riding on that rocket. When it worked, and Dragon worked, and the solar arrays deployed, people saw their handiwork in space operating as it should. There was tremendous elation. For us it is like winning the Super Bowl.”

Regardless of the fact that I was too excited to fall asleep right away after turning off the NASA feed, I’m very glad I sacrificed some of my sleep to watch that historic scene unfold.

Early this morning, the Dragon capsule conducted a “fly-under” of the ISS, bringing it within 2.4 km of the station. A number of maneuvers and tests were conducted to ensure that the Dragon capsule was operating properly and could be completely controlled, in anticipation of tomorrow’s docking. Everything went flawlessly.

I’ll likely be sacrificing some more sleep to catch all the action.  You can too: Live coverage begins at 7:30am ET (3:30am Pacific), and the feed can be found at SpaceX’s website.