SpaceX fuels Falcon 9 rocket; Dragon to arrive next month
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: August 16, 2011
SpaceX tested its next Falcon 9 rocket during a major countdown rehearsal Monday, loading propellant into the two-stage launcher and validating improvements made to the company's Cape Canaveral launch pad before liftoff as soon as Nov. 30.
The dress rehearsal included most countdown procedures before simulating an abort at T-minus 1 second.
The Falcon 9's first stage arrived at Cape Canaveral in April, followed by the launcher's second stage in July. Workers assembled the stages inside a hangar at Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 before rolling the booster out to the pad for Monday's countdown test.
SpaceX says engineers have upgraded the seaside launch pad since the Falcon 9's previous launch in December 2010, including adding new liquid oxygen pumps to reduce the fueling time from 90 minutes to less than 30 minutes. The improvement will streamline the Falcon 9 countdown for the next launch.
The mission's payload, the first full-up Dragon spacecraft, will be shipped to Cape Canaveral in early September, according to Kirstin Grantham, a company spokesperson.
The Dragon is currently undergoing final environmental testing and assembly at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
The upcoming flight will be the first Dragon with an operational service module, including a full complement of engines, extra fuel tanks and solar panels to generate electricity. The December test flight, which lasted about three hours, operated entirely on battery power and didn't need as much propellant as a mission to the space station.
For the last flight, the unpressurized trunk stayed attached to the Falcon 9's second stage in orbit. Only the retrievable Dragon capsule separted from the rocket.
The Falcon 9 rocket's inaugural launch in June 2010 was topped with a dummy Dragon capsule.
NASA tentatively approved SpaceX's request to combine the second and third in a series of three test flights of its Dragon spacecraft after a near-perfect demonstration mission in December. The space agency is withholding final judgment until engineers finish software testing and reviews of SpaceX's plans to launch two small commercial Orbcomm communications satellites on the same flight.
NASA is investing federal money into SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop spaceships to ferry supplies to the space station after the retirement of the space shuttle. Orbital Sciences plans the first test launch of its new Taurus 2 rocket in December, followed by flights to the space station in 2012.
If NASA permits SpaceX to launch Nov. 30, the Dragon capsule would reach the space station around Dec. 9. Once the capsule reaches a hold point just below the outpost, the lab's Canadian-built robot arm will reach out and grapple the cargo freighter, then transfer Dragon to a docking port.
It would stay at the space station for a few weeks, deliver some non-essential cargo in its pressurized cabin, then return to Earth via a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.