SpaceX Falcon Rocket vs. Robot Boat: Round Two!

Docking of the SpaceX Dragon aboard the International Space Station, March 2013. Docking of the SpaceX Dragon aboard the International Space Station, March 2013. NASA

Three months ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded spectacularly as it attempted to land on a robot boat. CEO Elon Musk described the failure, jokingly, as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Today, the private space launch company is going to try again—firing an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft into low Earth orbit for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. And then it’s going to try to land on that robot boat again.

The mission is a cargo-resupply, the sixth of 12 for which SpaceX has contracted with NASA. It’ll carry almost 4,400 lbs of food, supplies, and scientific equipment. That’s important to the astronauts up there, of course, but the company really wants to stick this landing. It’d be a proof-of-concept in using reusable rockets for spaceflight. Using the now-retired space shuttles for this kind of thing cost $1.5 billion per launch; Musk has said he believes reusable rockets could bring that down by a factor of 100. “The goal for NASA is to buy a service, not build it, freeing up resources for other space launches and space exploration,” says Katherine Hembelton, a spokesperson at NASA HQ.

But as the January mission showed, landing a rocket isn’t easy. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster successfully sent its Dragon capsule to the ISS and re-entered the atmosphere, and it even hit its target on the drone barge. Then it blew up. Musk told reporters the rocket’s stabilizing “hypersonic grid fins” simply ran out of hydraulic fluid. Musk and the company vowed to fix the issue for the next launch.

Liftoff is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. Eastern time Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Dragon is expected to stay docked to the ISS for five weeks, taking away 3,000 pounds of used supplies and trash and then splashing down 400 miles off the California coast. (No barge landing for it.).

Dragon is currently the only spacecraft capable of returning supplies to Earth, a vital capability for much of the science being conducted on the ISS—which range from investigating new ways of counteracting microgravity-induced cell damage in bones and muscles, new materials that could be used in building synthetic tissue for astronauts, continued vision studies for astronauts on prolonged spaceflight, and more. Many studies require safe transport of live animals, plants, organic materials, and other physical data to and from the ISS. (((could you more specifically here call out which studies require sample return? Microgravity doesn’t, vision doesn’t….

Both NASA and SpaceX are webcasting the launch. Don’t watch it hoping for a crash; that’d be morbid.

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