The SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-3 mission that was originally scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral at 4:41 EST on Sunday, March 16 has been pushed back at least two weeks.
Little has been made public about the reason for the delay, beyond that it is due to the discovery of an oily substance in contact with the unpressurized trunk section of the Dragon spacecraft. Fearing contamination of the substance into the cargo and electronic hardware, the launch has been postponed. According to a statement by SpaceX: “Both Falcon 9 and Dragon are in good health; given the critical payloads on board and significant upgrades to Dragon, the additional time will ensure SpaceX does everything possible on the ground to prepare for a successful launch.”
SpaceX conducted a prelaunch of Falcon 9’s engines on Saturday March 8. The 208-foot-tall craft was held onto the launch pad while all nine engines fired for a total of two seconds. Though short, this duration was long enough to determine successful operation of the rockets and related systems, and cleared the way for a launch date of March 16.
After cleanup and the resolution of “remaining open items,” the Falcon 9 will commence its mission on March 30, with April 2 as a back-up (both dates are “pending approval” from the Air Force Eastern Range).
Following its successful launch in two weeks, the mission will proceed according to a similar timeframe as originally planned. The unmanned Dragon craft will journey for two days before docking with the International Space Station (ISS). After a four week stay at ISS, Dragon will make the return trip to Earth. Upon reentry, it will slow with the aid of parachutes before making splashdown off the coast of California.
SpaceX has big plans for both its spacecraft and the CRS-3 mission. This Commercial Resupply Services mission is the third (hence, CRS-3) of twelve such missions that SpaceX has under contract with NASA. Dragon will be carrying 4600 pounds of cargo, which includes food, parts, a spare spacesuit, legs for Robonaut 2, and over 150 science experiments to be conducted at ISS. The variety of these experiments is impressive and exciting. En route to ISS, Falcon 9 will launch five CubeSats into low-Earth orbit. Once it has separated from Falcon 9 and is docked with ISS, Dragon will deliver the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), which will test the use of high-speed laser optics to transfer information between Earth and space. Other experiments include the University of Florida’s Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE), the installation and testing of High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) cameras, the T-Cell Activation in Aging experiment (which explores the human immune system in microgravity), and experiments in the growth of protein crystals in zero-g environments. After four weeks, Dragon will return to Earth with 3600 pounds of cargo composed of experiment results and discarded gear from ISS.
This mission marks a new, reusable design for the Falcon 9; following its separation from Dragon and reentry, Falcon 9 will deploy four hydraulic legs and, guided remotely by engineers, will touch down for a “landing” in the Atlantic. This new design is a step toward SpaceX’s ultimate goal of fully reusable, Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) craft that can land on the ground. The Dragon is already fully reusable, but the rockets that lift it into space are destroyed in the reentry phase.
In a press release, the Space Development Steering Committee explained: “We build rockets that cost $100 million each. We use them once, then we throw them away. It’s like buying a Rolls-Royce, driving it until its first tank of gas runs out, ditching it, then buying another Rolls.”
Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of SpaceX, is excited about this development: “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”
The current cost of launching one pound of material into space is roughly $38,000; that means that if a fully reusable spacecraft can be developed, the cost would be driven down to around $10 a pound.
Explaining that a lot of work stands between CRS-3 and VTVL, Musk said in a tweet: “F9 will continue to land in the ocean until we prove precision control from hypersonic thru subsonic regimes.” This mission will be only one small step for reusable craft. One giant leap for mankind.
By Eric Wheeler