SpaceX launches Dragon spacecraft, successfully lands first stage

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully lifted off early July 18 and placed a Dragon cargo spacecraft in orbit, while the vehicle’s first stage landed on land.

The Falcon 9 lifted off on schedule at 12:45 a.m. Eastern July 18 after a routine countdown. The vehicle placed the Dragon spacecraft into orbit nine and half minutes after liftoff.

The first stage, after stage separation, made a series of three burns to return to Cape Canaveral, landing on a pad at the former Launch Complex 13, a decommissioned launch site at Cape Canaveral now known as Landing Zone 1 by the company. The landing was a success, with video showing the first stage standing upright on the pad after landing, about eight minutes after liftoff.

“It’s exciting to have Dragon back in orbit,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS deputy program manager for utilization, at a post-launch press conference at the Kennedy Space Center. “It’s a great day for SpaceX. It’s a great day for NASA.”

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for SpaceX, said the Falcon 9 provided a “perfect orbit insertion” of the Dragon spacecraft. He praised the launch teams that made sure the launch, which had an instantaneous launch window, took place as planned.

The launch is the ninth for SpaceX under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. That contract, originally for 12 Dragon missions to the ISS, has been extended several times and now includes 20 missions through 2019. SpaceX is one of three companies that received CRS-2 contracts from NASA in January to cover cargo services into the 2020s.

The Dragon is carrying 2,257 kilograms of cargo for the ISS, including science investigations, supplies and hardware. Included in the Dragon’s unpressurized trank section is the second International Docking Adapter (IDA), which will allow future commercial crew vehicles to dock with the station. The first IDA was lost with the rest of the cargo on the June 2015 Falcon 9 launch failure. A third IDA, to replace that one, is being built for launch in 2018.

The landing was the second attempt by SpaceX to land the first stage on land. The first attempt, after the launch of 11 Orbcomm satellites in December 2015, was a success, and SpaceX now plans to display that first stage outside the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters.

Koenigsmann said at the post-launch press conference that this landing was comparable to the one last December. “It’s in really good shape,” he said. “From what I can see, it should probably be pretty soon ready to fly again.”

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk confirmed that assessment in a tweet after landing. “We just completed the post-landing inspection and all systems look good. Ready to fly again,” he wrote.

SpaceX has, since that December landing, succeeded in landing three first stages on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean, starting with the April launch of another Dragon mission to the ISS. Koenigsmann said at a pre-launch briefing July 16 that this stage will be the first the company plans to refly, no sooner than this fall.

The next two launches, of geostationary communications satellites, will return to the ship landings. Koenigsmann said the next land landing will likely be on the next CRS mission, later this year.

He added he talked with Musk after the launch and landing. “He was excited that the stage was back and in good health,” Koenigsmann said of Musk. “His comment was also that one day people will pay less attention to this, and that’s actually the day we succeed.”

With the successful launch, Dragon will arrive at the ISS and be grappled by the station’s robotic arm on July 20 at 7 a.m. Eastern. The Dragon will remain at the station for about five weeks before it departs, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.

 

A SpaceX rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule lifts off July 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Bases, Florida. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews
A SpaceX rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule lifts off July 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Florida. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews
Falcon 9 moments after lifting off from Cape Canaveral's Complex 40 launch pad. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews
Falcon 9 moments after lifting off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews