SpaceX Launches Cargo and Then Tries to Land Rocket
BY ALAN BOYLE
ter a day's delay, SpaceX launched its robotic Dragon cargo craft to the International Space Station on Tuesday — and then tried to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform.
Liftoff came at 4:10 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, almost exactly 24 hours after an earlier countdown was scrubbed when threatening clouds drifted too close to the launch pad. The weather posed no threat on Tuesday.
Watch Live: SpaceX Launch
This is the sixth of at least 12 cargo deliveries covered by a $1.6 billion contract between SpaceX and NASA. The mission's prime objective is to transport more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kilograms) of supplies and payloads, including the first zero-G espresso machine to go into orbit.
The Italian-built ISSpresso device was supposed to be delivered to the space station in January, but the loss of an Orbital Sciences shipment in October forced a reordering of the delivery schedule.
NASA's deputy manager for the space station program, Dan Hartman, said the fancy coffeemaker is a commercial experiment that the space agency hopes will "boost spirits" during long-duration space missions.
SpaceX is also looking for a boost in its effort to make rockets reusable and drive the cost of spaceflight dramatically downward. Minutes after launch, the Falcon 9's upper stage and the Dragon capsule are due to separate from the first stage and continue their rise to orbit. That's when the first stage is programmed to relight its engines, decelerate from supersonic speeds and descend to the deck of an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" in the Atlantic.
Video Captures SpaceX Rocket Landing End in Fiery Explosion
In January, an earlier Falcon 9 actually found its way to the deck — but the control system ran out of hydraulic fluid prematurely. As a result, the stage came down crooked and blew apart in a fiery blast. A second landing opportunity, in February, turned into an ocean splashdown test when SpaceX determined that the seas were too rough to use the platform.
This time around, there was plenty of fluid. SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, put the chances of success at 50 percent. The verdict on success or failure was expected to come within the hour.
If the landing works, a recovery crew will sail to the platform and secure the rocket stage. Then the stage will be brought back to Florida for inspection. Eventually, SpaceX plans to have rockets fly themselves back to land after launching space missions. The strategy is part of Musk's drive to reduce the cost of spaceflight to as little as 1 percent of what it is today — and blaze a trail for human settlements on Mars.