SpaceX cargo ship takes off on commercial flight to station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbs toward space to kick off the first commercial flight to the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA TV)

Three days after a last-second launch abort, a commercially developed rocket and cargo ship blasted off on NASA’s first commercial flight to the International Space Station.


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL–Three days after a last-second launch abort, an unmanned cargo ship bound for the International Space Station blasted off early Tuesday and streaked into orbit to kick off the first commercial flight to the lab complex.

With a replacement valve installed in the engine that derailed a launch try Saturday, all nine of the booster’s first stage engines roared to life on time at 3:44 a.m. EDT, throttling up to full thrust with a rush of fiery exhaust.

An instant later, after lightning-fast computer checks to verify the performance of the SpaceX-designed powerplants, the rocket was released from its firing stand and quickly climbed away from launh complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

To reach the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 and the solar-powered Dragon cargo ship had to take off at roughly the moment Earth’s rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the space station’s orbit. Any hiccups in the countdown would have triggered another frustrating three-day launch delay for a flight already running months behind schedule.

But as it turned out, the company did not need an extended window. There were no technical problems of any significance the second time around, the weather cooperated and a few minutes after the space station passed over the launch site, the 157-foot-tall rocket took off on a northeasterly trajectory and set off after its quarry.

The first stage engines burned for three minutes, shutting down in sequence as their propellants were exhausted. The first stage then fell away and the single Merlin engine powering the rocket’s second stage ignited to continue the push to orbit.

Live video from cameras mounted on the Falcon nine showed the launch site falling away from the rapidly accelerating rocket and later, the nozzle of the second stage engine, glowing red with the heat of combustion.

The second stage engine shut down as planned nine minutes and 14 seconds after liftoff. About 35 seconds later, the Dragon capsule separated from the second stage, visible in a forward-pointing camera as it floated away into space.

A few moments after that, protective covers were jettisoned and the capsule’s two solar panels unfolded to begin generating power and recharging the craft’s batteries.

It was a picture-perfect start to a long-awaited mission hailed as the dawn of a new era of commercial spaceflight.

“If successful, there’s no question this is a historic flight,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said earlier. “There have been only four nations, or groups of nations, that have berthed or docked a spacecraft to the International Space Stations — Europe, Russia, the United states, of course, and Japan. So yeah, we really stand in awe of having the opportunity to attempt this.”

This was the third flight of a Falcon 9 rocket and only the second for the company’s Dragon cargo capsule. But it is the company’s first mission designed to carry the Dragon all the way to the space station.

SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to launch at least 12 unmanned cargo missions to the lab complex, but only after test flights confirm the safety and reliability of the rocket and cargo capsule.

The test flights are being carried out under a contract valued at up to $396 million. Three missions originally were planned, but after a successful test flight in December 2010, SpaceX successfully lobbied NASA to combine the second and third tests into a single mission.

As a result, the Dragon spacecraft launched Tuesday will spend much of the day Thursday carrying out maneuvers near the station to test the craft’s flight control computers and navigation systems, and to check out the critical communications link between the station crew and the spacecraft.

If all of that goes well — work originally planned for the second of the three initiall planned test flights — SpaceX flight controllers will attempt the final phases of the rendezvous on Friday to complete the objectives of the third test flight, guiding the craft to a point within about 30 feet of the space station.

At that point, with the capsule’s thrusters disabled, flight engineer Donald Pettit, operating the station’s robot arm, will lock onto the cargo ship just after 8 a.m. and guide it to a berthing at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module.

“This is a fairly challenging mission, putting all those objectives together,” said Mike Horkachuck, SpaceX project executive for NASA. “But we’ve done a lot of work with SpaceX and our mission ops teams are both coordinating very well and we believe we’ve got a good chance of meeting all those objectives with this flight.”

The station crew plans to open hatches leading into the Dragon capsule on Saturday to begin unloading about 1,100 pounds of equipment and supplies. If all goes well, the spacecraft will be unloaded and detached from the station on May 31 for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.


Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of “Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia.” You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.






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