SpaceX launches reused Dragon to ISS

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WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a Dragon spacecraft April 2 carrying more than two and a half tons of cargo for the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9, flying SpaceX’s seventh mission of the year, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:30 p.m. Eastern. The Dragon spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage 10 minutes after liftoff.

The Dragon carries nearly 2,650 kilograms of cargo for the space station on this mission, the 14th under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. That cargo includes more than 1,000 kilograms of science investigations inside the Dragon spacecraft and more than 900 kilograms of external payloads in its trunk.

The Dragon is scheduled to berth with the station early April 4 and remain at the station for a month. It will return with about 1,800 kilograms of science payloads and hardware, including the “Robonaut” robot on the station, which is malfunctioning.

Pete Hasbrook, associate program scientist for the ISS at NASA, said at an April 1 briefing that Robonaut was not powering up, and engineers want to bring it back for repairs that can’t be done in space. “They believe there’s something in the electrical system, some kind of short,” he said. “They’re pretty confident that, when they get it back and dig into it, they’ll be able to repair it fairly quickly.” The repaired Robonaut would then be launched back to the ISS, likely next year.

The launch marked the third time SpaceX launched a reused Dragon capsule, and the second NASA mission to use a previously-flown first stage. The Dragon flying this mission first launched to the station on its eighth CRS mission in April 2016, while the first stage made its first flight on the 12th CRS mission in August 2017.

SpaceX elected not to attempt to land the first stage. Instead, the company planned to fly the first stage on a trajectory “a little bit out more towards the limits” to demonstrate its performance, said Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, during a pre-launch briefing April 1. “That way, our engineers can collect additional data not only during reentry but for the landing that will be useful for the future.”

SpaceX has recently not made efforts to recover first stages making their second flights. The company is planning to phase out those older versions of the Falcon 9 with the new Block 5 version that is designed for greater reuse. The first Falcon 9 Block 5 launch, of the Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite for Bangladesh, is scheduled for late April.

Jensen, though, didn’t rule out flying a Dragon capsule a third time, noting that the capsule on this mission was the first to make use of additional waterproofing that limited the number of components that needed to be replaced after splashdown on its first flight.

“Reusability is really important for the future of spaceflight,” she said. “It’s the only way we’re going to get thousands of people to space.”