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SpaceX launches Dragon to space station as rocket targets but fails at first landing

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with a cargo-packed Dragon spacecraft on the fifth NASA-contracted resupply mission for the International Space Station, Jan. 10, 2015. (SpaceX)
January 10, 2015

– The launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station had potential to put a new, historic spin on the adage "what goes up, must come down."

Instead, in the words of SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk, it was "close, but no cigar."

Nine minutes after lifting off at 4:47 a.m. EST (0909 GMT) on Saturday (Jan. 10) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Dragon entered orbit. The launch signaled the start of CRS-5, the fifth station cargo run under SpaceX's 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

At about the same time that the gumdrop-shaped capsule entered space, its 208-foot-tall (63 meter) booster's spent first stage was anticipated back on Earth. But unlike just about every other rocket's first stage in history, this rocket segment wasn't falling to its destruction. It was "boosting back" in an experimental engine-powered maneuver that if successful, would have left it poised on a floating platform off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX's CRS-5 Dragon spacecraft is seen set against the limb of the Earth as it begins its journey to the space station. (SpaceX)

"Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard," Musk reported on Twitter. "Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced."

Though the landing didn't go as planned, the launch of the Dragon was successful, which was the main objective.

"I am going to be super excited if this [landing] works, but at the same time, I don't want to distract from the main mission," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president for mission assurance, told reporters in a pre-flight briefing. "The main mission is absolutely to get cargo to the station and to make sure that the station's supply is steady and stable and reliable."

Station-bound with CATS aboard

Should all proceed as scheduled, the Dragon capsule will rendezvous with the space station on Monday (Jan. 12), when the outpost's crew will use the station's robotic arm to capture the unmanned spacecraft and attach it onto the side of the Harmony module for a month-long stay.


, Jan. 12: SpaceX's CRS-5 Dragon was berthed to the station at 7:54 a.m. CST (1354 GMT) on Monday (Jan. 12), three hours after its rendezvous and capture.

The Dragon is filled with supplies and payloads, including the needed materials to support 256 science and research investigations leading into the orbiting lab's first yearlong expedition set to begin in March.

"SpaceX-5 is carrying up much-needed cargo to the orbital outpost," Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, said. "Of all the cargo onboard, about 1.8 metric tons [4,000 pounds] of pressurized cargo. I think that's the most we've crammed into the Dragon to date."

"The SpaceX folks have used quite a bit of ingenuity to put items into all the little cracks and crevasses as we kind of lean on the Dragon vehicle to supply ISS here for the next little while until the Orbital folks are flying again," Suffredini said, noting that CRS-5 is the first U.S. resupply mission since the inflight loss of Orbital Sciences' Cygnus freighter in October.

SpaceX's mission patch for its fifth Dragon resupply flight to the International Space Station, CRS-5, on Jan. 10, 2015. (SpaceX)

The Dragon's cargo includes replacements for some of the items lost onboard the Cygnus, as well as food and crew supplies. Among the science payloads are fruit flies and flatworms for research related to the biological effects of spaceflight, and CATS — or the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System — a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system that will be mounted on the exterior of the space station to monitor cloud and aerosol coverage that directly impacts the global climate.

The mission is also delivering an IMAX camera in support of an upcoming feature film and tools to be used in future spacewalks to prepare the station for the addition of new international docking adapters.

Autonomous spaceport drone ship

As most of NASA's and SpaceX's attention is focused on the Dragon's voyage to the space station, a team from the company is now assessing the results of "an experiment" — the first-ever attempt at landing the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage on a floating platform.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket first stage targeted a landing atop the company's autonomous spaceport drone ship. (SpaceX)

"The [first stage] will turn around and perform what's called a 'boost-back burn,' bringing the first stage closer back in," Koenigsmann said, previewing the landing attempt. "It will continue to coast and as it gets closer to the atmosphere, it will perform an entry burn."

"That will be followed by a landing burn and [that] burn is targeted to an autonomous spaceport drone ship," he said, noting the official term for the company's new 300 by 170 foot (90 by 50 meter) platform. "I'm pretty sure this will be exciting [but] it is an experiment and [so] there is a certain likelihood that this will not work out right. It is the first time we've tried this."

Musk said that even though this attempt at landing failed, it still "bodes well for the future."

SpaceX earlier succeeded at "soft splashdowns," testing the boost back, entry and landing burns but over the open ocean water. If subsequent similar tests are successful, it could lead to the reuse of the first stage, reducing launch costs and bringing spaceflight one step closer to airliner-like operations.

"The key is reusability that is easy," Koenigsmann stated. "That doesn't require taking the rocket apart and replacing a lot of parts here and there, but if you have reusability, even for a limited number of flights, that is in the airplane-type category, then that is the long-term vision."

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SpaceX CRS-5 Dragon launch

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