FALCON LANDS! Record Breaking SpaceX Launch Returns Dragon to Flight

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — For the first time since the catastrophic explosion of CRS-7, SpaceX’s Dragon was successfully launched this evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), beginning the resupply capsule’s two-day orbital journey to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). Falcon 9’s fuselage then landed successfully on the SpaceX drone ship following first-stage separation. An historic first for the aerospace company, which had been unsuccessful in its four previous barge landing attempts, this milestone puts SpaceX one step closer toward reusable launch vehicles.

Photo credit: theOrbital.space/Josh Dinner

Photo credit: theOrbital.space/Josh Dinner

Falcon 9’s first stage separation occurred 2 minutes 34 seconds after its 4:43pm ET liftoff, after which time thrusters aboard the rocket's main fuselage altered its trajectory for decent and landing onto SpaceX’s Autonomous Drone Ship, Of Course I Still Love You.

A momentous achievement, the ability to reuse a rocket’s main stage will greatly reduce the cost of future launches.

Falcon 9's first stage lands on SpaceX's Autonomous Drone Ship. Video credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9's first stage lands on SpaceX's Autonomous Drone Ship. Video credit: SpaceX

@ElonMusk watching the replay of @SpaceX's #CRS8 launch and landing of the first stage #Falcon9.

A photo posted by TheOrbital.Space (@theorbitalspace) on

Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President for Flight Reliability for SpaceX, said in a press conference, “We have to take a look at the vehicle to make sure its flight worthy. There are plans [to re-fly the stage], but its not going to be immediately. Its going to be a couple months before we see what we do with the stage.” Echoing his companion after the successful landing, Elon Musk emphasized that SpaceX hopes their reusable rockets become common place, with a flight turn-around timeline shrinking to a matter of weeks.

While this particular flight had the fuel reserves for a potential landing back at Cape Canaveral, Musk and SpaceX wanted to utilize the opportunity to test the rocket and the Autonomous Drone Ship's capabilities. SpaceX's next three launch trajectories make a drone ship landing their only option, and given the proven success of the CRS-8 launch, Musk seems confident in the rocket design's continued abilities.

Continuing its commitment to NASA’s Commercial Resupply Service contract, this is SpaceX’s eighth cargo mission to the ISS (CRS-8). The station’s busiest time in history, Dragon will be the fourth spacecraft to arrive in as many weeks. Ferrying over 3,000 kilograms of supplies and experiments to the orbital laboratory for the Expedition 47 and 48 crews, Dragon’s installation will mark the first time two different commercial resupply vehicles are docked to the ISS (Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft arrived March 26), and the first time since 2011 that six different spacecraft are berthed to the station.

On board, Dragon is carrying an experimental expandable habitat, BEAM. The first of its kind, the module will be attached to the Tranquility Node’s aft docking port and expanded to over four times its compacted flight configuration. Pioneered by Bigelow Aerospace, expandable habitats such as BEAM have the potential to greatly increase orbital habitat volume, while simultaneously decreasing launch mass, and therefore launch cost.

Additionally, new experiments arriving to the station will continue research largely pertaining to NASA’s Journey to Mars initiative. 20 mice are hitching a ride to the ISS to help study the degradation of the musculoskeletal system in space. In another experiment, crew members will utilize the microgravity environment to study protein crystal growth for pharmaceutical company Eli-Lilly to aid in the design of future cancer-fighting drugs.

Last year’s failures of SpaceX’s CRS-7 Falcon and the loss of one of Roscosmos’s Progress supply craft forced crews aboard the ISS to dip into their food reserves. Now, resources aboard the space station are fully restocked. Kenneth Todd, ISS Operations Integration Manager, praises NASA’s commercial partners on the hard work put forth in bringing the ISS back to full force. 

The reality is, over a period of time there, we didn’t see a lot of vehicle traffic. So getting our consumables back up to the point where they need to be is something we’ve been putting a lot of effort into. Our providers [at NASA] have delivered in a big way.
— Kenneth Todd, ISS Operations Integration Manager

Dragon separated from the second stage rocket 10 minutes and 30 seconds into its flight, successfully deploying its solar arrays two minutes later. The resupply capsule will spend the next two days catching up to the ISS, at which point capture by the stations Canadarm2 under the control of Tim Peake will dock Dragon to the Harmony module’s Earth-facing port.

The Dragon capsule will remain docked to the ISS until its departure May 11. A unique feature of SpaceX’s resupply vessel, Dragon’s capability to return safely to Earth will bring biological samples from crew members, including those from One-Year Mission astronaut Scott Kelly, back for continued research and examination.