First SpaceX CRS Starts Shaky, Ends Strong

The SpaceX CRS-1 Mission launched from Cape Canaveral on Sunday, October 7 at 7:35 PM CDT. A Falcon 9 rocket carried the Dragon spacecraft into orbit, where it docked with the ISS and stayed for a few weeks before returning to Earth. However, not all went well during the rocket’s ascent through the atmosphere.

One minute and 19 seconds after launch, “the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine,” according to SpaceX. Falcon 9′s Merlin Engine 1 (of nine) suddenly lost pressure, causing a small explosion during the rocket’s ascent. The engine shut down and continued to send data, meaning that there was no catastrophic damage. After ejecting pressure panels near the trouble area, the flight computer calculated a new ascent trajectory, and the mission continued without incident. According to SpaceX, “no other rocket currently flying has this ability.” You can watch the launch anomaly at T+00:01:19 in the video below:

The rocket delivered Dragon into low Earth orbit and after a few days the capsule approached the International Space Station to dock. Commander Sunita Williams used the station’s robotic arm to capture the spacecraft, radioing in to say, “Looks like we’ve tamed the Dragon.” Docking completed on October 10 at 8:03 AM CDT. The crew was able to open the hatch a few hours later, one day ahead of schedule.

The capsule remained docked to the ISS for the next 18 days while the crew unloaded hundreds of kilograms of restock supplies and vehicle hardware. In addition to resupplying the ISS, Dragon is also designed to return experiments, used station hardware, and scientific samples to Earth. The capsule even has a GLACIER freezer onboard, allowing it to carry biological samples from the station back home for analysis. Dragon disembarked the station with 759 kg of return cargo on Sunday, October 28 at approximately 8:29 AM CDT.

The journey to splash down progressed quickly compared to the days it took the capsule to arrive at the ISS. The craft began its final de-orbit burn at 1:28 PM CDT, five hours after it left the ISS, and splashed down in the Pacific ocean at 2:22 PM CDT, 400 km off the coast of southern California. To slow its descent, the capsule released two drogue parachutes 13700 km above sea level and then its three main parachutes 3000 km above sea level. Below is a video of Dragon’s splash down:

Dragon was recovered by a 30 meter Navy boat and arrived at port near Los Angeles today. In a nod to the holiday, SpaceX released a “spooky” picture of the capsule in transit (see below). Early arrival cargo is in the process of being transferred to NASA. Dragon will then travel to SpaceX in McGregor, Texas for processing, after which the rest of the cargo will be delivered. SpaceX and NASA are continuing to investigate the launch anomaly. This mission was the first of 12 CRS (Commercial Resupply Services) missions that NASA has contracted SpaceX to perform. It is a historic milestone for commercial spaceflight. The CRS-3 mission in 2013 will be carrying KickSat into orbit in addition to performing its resupply services for the ISS.

Happy Halloween!

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