Privately-built capsule takes off bound for space station
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: October 7, 2012
SpaceX launched the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station on Sunday, putting the privately-built Dragon spacecraft into orbit despite an engine anomaly moments after liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket from Florida.
The mission is the first commercial resupply flight to the space station, which is regularly serviced by government-owned freighters from Russia, Europe and Japan. It also marks the resumption of U.S. resupply missions following the retirement of the space shuttle.
"This was a critical event for NASA and the nation tonight," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. "Just over a year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we have returned space station resupply missions to U.S. soil."
Following a successful test flight in May, SpaceX received approval from NASA in August to begin 12 unmanned logistics sorties to the complex scheduled over the next four years.
"Overall, this one was a little bit easier, from my perspective," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president.
The cargo-laden Dragon capsule lifted off at 8:35 p.m. EDT Sunday (0035 GMT Monday) from SpaceX's launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
The Falcon 9 rocket left a trail of orange fire in its wake as the 157-foot-tall launcher climbed through clouds, creating a waning glow as the vehicle disappeared from the view of spectators.
But powerful optical cameras positioned around Cape Canaveral recorded a dramatic puff in the rocket's fiery exhaust. The event was accompanied by what appeared to be debris tumbling beneath the launcher.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly with an engine and shut it down.
Shotwell said in a post-launch press conference there was a problem with Engine No. 1, which sits on the corner of the first stage's tic-tac-toe pattern of Merlin 1C engines.
"Falcon 9 detected an anomaly on one of the nine engines and shut it down," Musk said in an email to Spaceflight Now. "As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in realtime to reach the target orbit, which is why the burn times were a bit longer."
The first stage burned nearly 30 seconds longer than designed, and the Falcon 9's second stage also fired longer than planned, compensating for the loss of performance and still placing the Dragon spacecraft in a nearly perfect orbit between 122 miles and 203 miles above Earth.
"Like Saturn 5, which experienced engine loss on two flights, the Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine flameout and still complete its mission," Musk said. "I believe Falcon 9 is the only rocket flying today that, like a modern airliner, is capable of completing a flight successfully even after losing an engine. There was no effect on Dragon or the space station resupply mission."
SpaceX said more information would be released Monday on the engine mishap.
According to Shotwell, the Falcon 9 deployed a two-way communications satellite for Orbcomm Inc. No information was available late Sunday on the state of the satellite's health.
The Dragon spacecraft will fine-tune its approach to the space station over the next two days and reach the complex Wednesday.
The ship's suite of thermal and optical rendezvous sensors will help guide the Dragon toward a position about 30 feet beneath the space station, where the lab's robot arm will grapple the spacecraft around 7:22 a.m. EDT (1122 GMT) Wednesday.
Astronauts will enter the spacecraft once it is berthed on the space station's Harmony module and begin unloading 882 pounds of cargo, including food, spare parts and experiments.
Workers also stowed away treats for the space station crew, including fresh food and bluebonnet vanilla ice cream with chocolate swirl.
The Dragon spacecraft will leave the space station Oct. 28 and return to Earth with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, bringing back precious experiment samples and other gear totaling 1,673 pounds.