Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched an unmanned craft to begin regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, becoming the first company to provide space supply services to the U.S. government.
The company, known as SpaceX and controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule at 8:35 p.m. local time yesterday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The capsule separated from the rocket and reached orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff.
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for at least a dozen resupply missions. The agency is relying on companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Dulles, Virginia, to do the work after retiring its shuttle fleet last year.
“Falcon 9 rocket booster has delivered Dragon to its target orbit!” Musk tweeted after the launch.
In a test mission, SpaceX on May 25 became the first company to dock a commercial craft at the station.
The supply ship is carrying about 1,000 pounds of cargo, including materials for scientific experiments aboard the station. After a three-day journey through space, it will arrive at the station for a two-week visit.
The bullet-shaped capsule will return to Earth with twice as much gear when it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California. It’s designed to bring back a significant amount of experiments, unlike other vehicles developed by Orbital and the governments of Europe, Japan and Russia.
“Just over one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we have returned space station cargo resupply missions to U.S. soil,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement last night.
While the craft was inserted into a “picture-perfect” orbit, the liftoff wasn’t flawless, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said after the launch last night. One of the rocket’s nine engines had an “anomaly,” which may explain why the first-stage burn lasted longer than usual, she said.
“The Falcon 9 was designed to lose engines and still make missions, so it did what it was supposed to do,” she said at a press conference.
Designed to Handle
A video of the night-time launch showed debris flying off one of the engines about a minute and 19 seconds into flight.
The engine didn’t explode and continued to transmit data, according to a statement e-mailed today by Katherine Nelson, a SpaceX spokeswoman. Rather, the protective cover on engine one ruptured after the engine suddenly lost pressure and was shut down, she said.
Like the Saturn V rocket, which sent astronauts to moon and experienced engine loss on two flights, “Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission,” Nelson said. The supply ship is scheduled to arrive at the station on Oct. 10, she said.
SpaceX is also building a manned version of its Dragon spacecraft with help from NASA. The U.S. depends on Russia for transporting crew to the station at a cost of about $63 million per seat aboard Soyuz spacecraft.
The agency in August awarded three companies $1.11 billion to develop spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts. SpaceX won $440 million, Chicago-based Boeing Co. received $460 million and Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. got $213 million.
SpaceX plans to launch an orbital flight with astronauts “in about three years,” Musk said Oct. 5 during a press conference NASA broadcast on its website, “and to actually take astronauts to the space station in about four years.”
Orbital has delayed the test flight of its new Antares rocket designed for space station missions. The company plans to launch the rocket for the first time in December. The liftoff was previously planned for August.
The delay stems partly from faulty fuel valves found during inspections of the new $125 million launch pad at Wallops Island in Virginia. The company last week rolled out the rocket’s first-stage engine to the pad for tests in preparation of its maiden flight.
Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight resupply missions scheduled through 2016. A separate demonstration mission to the station is planned for next year, possibly late February or early March.