Photo Gallery: Inaugural SpaceX Falcon 9 soars into orbit
At 2:45 p.m. EDT on Friday, June 4, 2010, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) successfully launched its first Falcon 9 rocket from Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The inaugural liftoff, which placed a mockup of the company's Dragon crew and cargo spacecraft into orbit, came on the second launch attempt of the day after a last-second scrub.
"We put our Falcon 9 rocket into orbit, it achieved a near bullseye on the target. We would have been excited even to have the first stage work or get some of the way through the second stage burn," said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. "It has been a great day."
The Falcon 9 launched on nine SpaceX Merlin IC engines, fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade (RP-1) kerosene. Two minutes and 56 seconds into the flight, the first and second stages separated, followed three seconds later by the ignition of the second stage's single Merlin Vacuum engine that burned for approximately five minutes. At engine cutoff, the second stage and attached Dragon boilerplate was placed into its intended 155 mile orbit at a 34.5 degree inclination.
The Dragon mockup, while structurally and aerodynamically equivalent to the full spacecraft, was not equipped with a heat shield, thrusters, or a recovery system, and as such was launched on a one-way mission.
Though not a primary goal of this test flight, it was hoped that the first stage could be recovered, descending by parachute to the ocean. The stage hit the water hard -- parachute deployment was not observed and a debris field was reported.
SpaceX first attempted to launch the 154-foot, 735,000-pound rocket earlier in the day but ran into several delays. A sailboat that strayed into the danger zone and interference between the launch pad's support structure and the antenna relaying communications with the rocket's self-destruct system pushed the liftoff later into the window, which opened at 11 a.m.
The countdown was halted mere seconds before a 1:30 p.m. try due to an engine sensor that was reading high. SpaceX was able to address the issue, recycle the count and launch before the window closed at 3 p.m.
SpaceX is developing the Falcon 9 and Dragon under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program with the objective to transport cargo and crew members to and from low Earth orbit. This inaugural flight was funded by SpaceX; three follow-on NASA demonstration flights are planned.
"Preparations are proceeding for the first NASA-sponsored test launch under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project later this year," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired."
Photo credits: SpaceX/Chris Thompson / collectSPACE/Robert Z. Pearlman