Saturday, June 3, 2017

SpaceX Launches Previously Used Cargo Capsule for First Time: Recycled rockets and spacecraft regarded as key to slashing cost of access to space



The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
Updated June 3, 2017 8:37 p.m. ET


Elon Musk’s SpaceX for the first time launched a refurbished cargo capsule that had been used on a previous mission, a major stride toward eventually reusing spacecraft carrying astronauts.

Saturday’s blastoff of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the unmanned Dragon capsule went off like clockwork, rising from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on schedule at 5:07 p.m. local time. Neither the rocket nor the previously flown capsule, filled with roughly three tons of supplies and experiments destined for the international space station, experienced any technical problems.

The capsule initially flew and came back from the orbiting laboratory in 2014.

The latest feat by Southern California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. followed by two months the closely held company’s historic accomplishment of launching, returning and vertically landing the major portion of a used booster to cap off two separate trips to space.

Slightly more than five years ago, SpaceX became the first corporate entity to link up a spacecraft with the orbiting space station.

Ultimately, Mr. Musk and many other space experts consider reusable rockets and spacecraft key to slashing the cost of access to space and stepping up launch tempos.

Over the years, a major challenge confronting SpaceX was ensuring that water didn’t leak into returning Dragons as parachutes guided them to gentle splashdowns. A still unanswered question is how many times a capsule’s heat shield—attached to the bottom of the pear-shaped vehicle and designed to withstand fiery returns through the atmosphere—can be reflown safely.

The recycled Dragon featured a new heat shield and replacement parachutes.

Three minutes after liftoff, the main engines stopped firing as planned, the first stage separated and then the engine powering the second stage ignited. Less than eight minutes after blastoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage touched down vertically at its landing site near the launchpad. The capsule is scheduled to arrive at the space station on Monday.

The launch had been scrubbed Thursday due to weather. Scientific cargo on board includes mice that are part of an effort to study loss of bone density in space, along with hundreds of fruit flies for biological experiments and seeds intended to grow in microgravity. Another experiment aims to test a new, flexible type of solar array that is supposed to unfurl like a mat.

Saturday’s blastoff also moves SpaceX closer to shifting management and worker resources to producing just a single variant of the Dragon capsule—intended to routinely start carrying humans into orbit before the end of the decade.

The same generation of spacecraft will be used in the future to also ferry cargo into orbit. Building, testing and reflying identical versions of the spacecraft is expected to reduce factory time and expenses for SpaceX, though it isn’t clear at what point federal space officials will sign off on recycling Dragons that carry astronauts. In the long run, company officials have said, they foresee potentially dozens of such repeat missions.

Company engineers continue to modify Falcon 9 rockets to increase their load capabilities and make them easier to reuse. Dragon capsules also have been optimized for reuse. Company officials hope to reduce refurbishment time, including cutting down on structural inspections, as they become more proficient at flying used spacecraft.

The blastoff marked SpaceX’s 11th successful cargo launch, and it is likely to give the company and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a boost as both sides ramp up efforts to certify Dragons for human spaceflights. NASA’s now-retired space shuttle fleet also was designed to launch repeatedly, though refurbishing the shuttles between missions proved substantially more complex, expensive and time-consuming than envisioned.

In addition to focusing on flying refurbished rockets and Dragon cargo capsules, SpaceX’s technical experts are engaged in detailed discussions with their NASA counterparts about whether the agency will need to grant certain waivers from safety standards to authorize transporting astronauts to the orbiting space station. One of the biggest hurdles, according to agency and industry experts, relates to the hazards of flying through portions of space cluttered with tiny meteors and leftover debris from previous missions by countries and commercial entities.

Original article can be found here:  https://www.wsj.com

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As an engineer and knowing something about how hard it is to do what SpaceX is doing with regularity, I am deeply impressed with their accomplishments. Bringing a orbital capable first stage back into the atmosphere going hypersonic speed backwards is quite the trick. Relighting the rockets into the wind at supersonic speeds was thought to be impossible.

The SpaceX does the impossible with great flare. I continue to be thrilled every time I watch a Falcon 9 land. Re-usability is the Holy Grail of rocketry. After 50 years of naysayers finally someone has done it.

Congratulations SpaceX on another successful launch and recovery of the 1st stage!

Anonymous said...

Yes, American tax dollars spent on America. We need more of this.