PHOENIX — SpaceX is prepared to launch its first cargo mission to the International Space Station since a June 2015 launch failure, a mission that will bring to the station both experiments and a prototype expandable module.
At a pre-launch press conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center April 7, officials with NASA and SpaceX said there were no issues preventing a launch of an upgraded Falcon 9 at 4:43 p.m. Eastern April 8 on the company’s eighth commercial resupply mission to the station.
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability at SpaceX, said the company had completed a launch readiness review for the mission and was not working any problems. Forecasts predict a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather at launch time, as well as if the launch slips to Saturday.
The Dragon is carrying more than 3,100 kilograms of cargo for the ISS, including a mix of crew supplies, science experiments and station hardware. The experiments carried to the station, some of which will return to Earth on the Dragon in May, include a particular emphasis on various biological experiments. The mission, said Kirt Costello, deputy chief scientist of the ISS at NASA, “is an amazing bonanza for the biological sciences.”
The largest single item on the mission, though, is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype expandable module developed by Bigelow Aerospace. While NASA plans to use BEAM to test expandable technologies for potential future use in deep-space habitats or Mars missions, Bigelow sees BEAM as a testbed for its much larger expandable habitat modules it is developing.
“It is an important step for us, it really is, that NASA has the confidence in our little company to be able to do this,” said Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, at a NASA briefing. “We are excited about this opportunity.”
Bigelow said that a successful test of BEAM on the ISS would keep the company on track to deploy its first space station by 2020. That facility would consist of two of the company’s B330 modules, each with 330 cubic meters of volume, docked to each other. The company would lease the station to companies or countries that want to perform research or other activities in low Earth orbit.
While BEAM is designed primarily for NASA’s use to test the environment inside the expandable module, Bigelow suggested that the module, about five percent the size of a B330, might also be used for commercial activities.
“We have four different groups today that want to fly experiments and different payloads to BEAM,” he said. Two of those are companies and two are national agencies, although he did not identify them. “We hoping that, maybe in half a year or something, we can get permission from NASA to accommodate these people in some way.”
For SpaceX, the launch is another opportunity to attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage with a landing on a “drone ship” in the Atlantic Ocean downrange from the launch site. Four previous attempts to land the stage on the ship, including on two launches earlier this year, have all failed.
Koenigsmann said they’ve worked to improve the odds of a successful landing, including making fixes to the landing legs to avoid a repeat of a January landing attempt where the stage touched down on the ship, only to fall over and explode after one of the legs collapsed. “I certainly hope that we’re going to nail the landing this time,” he said.
He added SpaceX had the option of trying to bring the stage all the way back to Cape Canaveral, similar to the successful landing the company performed on a December launch. “On this particular flight, we decided we wanted to go to the drone ship and see if we can get a successful landing on the drone ship,” he said, in part because upcoming launches only have the option of a drone ship landing given the nature of their missions. “It’s a good opportunity for us to refine our drone ship landing capabilities.”
Koenigsmann added that he believed SpaceX had worked out issues with the use of “densified” propellants in the upgraded Falcon 9, where liquid oxygen and kerosene are cooled to increase their density and improve the vehicle’s performance. Problems with liquid oxygen in particular contributed to several delays in the previous Falcon 9 launch.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve learned the most of it,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got this relatively well under control in this point in time.”