SpaceX launched a load of supplies to the International Space Station on Saturday following a pair of unusual power delays. The launch came two days after the company confirmed its crew capsule was destroyed in ground testing two weeks ago and conceded that the accident is “not great news” for its effort to launch astronauts this year.
A Falcon rocket raced into the pre-dawn darkness, carrying a Dragon capsule with 5,500 pounds (2,500 kilograms) of goods. This recycled Dragon — which is making its second space trip — is due to arrive at the orbiting lab Monday.
The booster, meanwhile, streaked to a smooth landing on a recovery ship just offshore.
“This is usually a routine task for SpaceX,” CNN reported. “But the latest launch, originally scheduled for earlier this week, was plagued by unusual hangups on its path to the launch pad, including a rare electrical issue aboard the space station.”
SpaceX couldn’t resist the Star Wars Day connection — Saturday is May 4, the unofficial Star Wars holiday, i.e. “May the Fourth be with you.”
“Dragon is now officially on the way to the space station,” the SpaceX launch commentator announced once the capsule reached orbit and its solar wings unfurled. “Until next time, May the Fourth be with you.”
The Dragon spacecraft is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers to and from Earth orbit, and beyond, according to SpaceX. The pressurized section of the capsule is designed to carry both people and environmentally sensitive cargo. Towards the base of the capsule and contained within the nose cone are the Draco thrusters, which allow for orbital maneuvering.
Dragon’s trunk not only carries unpressurized cargo but also supports the spacecraft during ascent. The trunk remains attached to Dragon until shortly before reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, the company adds.
The Saturday delivery is a few days late because of electrical power shortages that cropped up first at the space station, then at SpaceX’s rocket-landing platform in the Atlantic. Both problems were quickly resolved with equipment replacements: a power-switching unit in orbit and a generator at sea.
Minutes after liftoff, SpaceX landed its brand new, first-stage booster on the ocean platform roughly 10 miles (16 kilometers) off the coast, considerably closer than usual with the sonic booms easily heard at the launch site.
“That looked really, really cool in the night sky,” said Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX vice president who left his launch control seat to run outside and watch.
The booster likely will be reused for SpaceX’s next station supply run. That’s why the company and NASA halted Friday’s countdown at the last minute — so the recovery ship could be repaired and have full power for the landing operation. It was the first time a launch like this was nixed by rocket-landing concerns.
The booster should have returned to Cape Canaveral, but SpaceX is still cleaning up from the April 20 accident that destroyed an empty crew Dragon capsule.
Koenigsmann said earlier this week the company still does not know what caused the empty capsule to burst apart in flames on a test stand. The capsule’s SuperDraco launch-abort thrusters were just a half-second from firing when the blast occurred.
This first crew capsule had completed a successful test flight, minus a crew, to the space station in March. SpaceX intended to refly the capsule on a launch-abort test in June, ahead of the first flight with astronauts on a new crew Dragon. The schedule is now up in the air, as SpaceX scrambles to identify and correct whatever went wrong.
SpaceX has been restocking the station since 2012.
This latest cargo Dragon — making the company’s 17th shipment — is carrying equipment and experiments for the six space station astronauts, including an instrument to monitor carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.
The California-based company is also under contract with NASA, along with Boeing, to transport astronauts to the space station. It’s unclear whether these commercial crew flights will begin this year, given the Dragon accident and Boeing’s own delays with its Starliner capsule.
Astronauts have not launched from Cape Canaveral since the last space shuttle mission in 2011, instead riding Russian rockets at a steep cost to NASA.