Spaceflight Insider

Moon descends, Falcon rises: SpaceX lofts Dragon, fails to land booster on ship

SpaceX 5th commercial resupply mission launches successfully from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 10 as seen on Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX 5th commercial resupply mission launches successfully from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 10. Photo Credit: Mike Deep/Spaceflight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After several delays pushed back the launch of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) fifth commercial resupply mission, the company’s Falcon 9 rocket lofted its Dragon cargo capsule into orbit , and on its way to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). This marks the first launch of 2015. Dragon is set to rendezvous with the space station on Jan. 12 at 6:12 a.m. EST (1112 GMT).

Falcon roars to life, launching Dragon on its way to the International Space Station as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Falcon roars to life, launching Dragon on its way to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Mike Howard/Spaceflight Insider

A Falcon 9 v1.1 roared to life, lifting off of Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at 4:47 a.m. (0947 GMT). The local weather cooperated beautifully, for the early Saturday morning launch, and at T-13 minutes, a final flight readiness poll was conducted and the official “GO” was given for launch. Three seconds prior to liftoff, the nine Merlin 1D engines, arranged in the Octaweb configuration, came to life. Between then and T-0, the flight computer assured all systems were nominal before the Falcon thundered into the sky above.

“It was an absolutely picture-perfect, flawless launch at 4:47 a.m. this morning. An on-time liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule and now all the critical experiments and payload that we need at the station – is on its way,” said NASA’s Michael Curie.

SpaceX aims to make its Falcon’s reusable, eventually landing the first stage on solid ground, where it can be recovered, refurbished and reflown on a subsequent mission. A previous commercial resupply mission (CRS-3) saw the addition of landing legs on the Falcon. SpaceX officials predicted the success of this first stage landing attempt at 50/50.

Despite all the barge hype, the company’s main objective for this mission is to ensure the crew supplies, research experiments, and hardware arrive to the International Space Station (ISS) safely. Following a catastrophic explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket in Oct., SpaceX was not taking any chances with the cargo and this mission.

SpaceX officials stated in a pre-launch press conference, “Our primary mission is to deliver the cargo to the space station safely. The first stage landing is a bonus experiment. It’s something no one else has tried before. We think it has a 50 percent chance of success.”

Graphic showing the flight plan of the Falcon 9 and attempted landing as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Graphic showing the flight plan of the Falcon 9 and attempted landing. Image Credit: Jon Ross/NBC News

Approximately three minutes after launch, the second stage separated and ignited its own engine to continue to propel the Dragon into space. At this time, the first stage, having retained some fuel after the initial ascent boost, reignited and carried out a series of maneuvers designed to put it on target with a 300-foot-long, 170-foot-wide (91-by-52-meter) “autonomous spaceport drone ship” in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX previously tested aspects of this experiment in other missions, including splashdowns in the ocean; however, this is the first time the company has attempted to land the first stage booster and return it to shore. In order to help facilitate this experiment, the Falcon is equipped with four hypersonic stabilizing grid fins and is outfitted with landing legs.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX mission assurance vice president, said “This is the first test in a series of tests that will ultimately lead to a fully reusable Falcon first stage. We may not know right away if the test was successful, as there could be some delays.”

Following the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted status updates on the outcome of the attempted first stage landing.

Twenty eight hours prior to liftoff, the Dragon spacecraft was powered up. At T-10 hours, the Falcon was turned on and fueling began seven hours later at the T-3 hour mark. Just under 30 minutes after the RP-1 propellant had been loaded into the vehicle, crews began to add the liquid oxygen.

At T-10 minutes, the terminal phase of the countdown began, with the Strongback rollback occurring at T-4 minutes and forty seconds. The strongback is used to keep the rocket erect on the pad as well as house umbilical supports during countdown.

Falcon is equipped with a Flight Termination System (FTS), that will destroy the rocket in the case of an anomaly. The FTS was switched to internal power at just under T-4 minutes, and was fully armed a minute later.

SpaceX Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship - CRS-5 SpaceX photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Autonomous Drone Ship where Falcon attempted to land. Photo Credit: SpaceX

At this stage in the countdown, the launch director and range control officer gave the all clear to launch, with two minutes remaining before liftoff. It was at this point in the count when the previous launch attempt was scrubbed.

The reason for the scrub was determined to be actuator drift on the upper stage’s thrust vector control system. The TVC system was replaced prior to this morning’s launch. Three seconds before launch, the Falcon’s nine Merlin-1D engines roared to life and the rocketed lifted off the pad a few moments later.

Roughly one minute and 10 seconds into the flight, Falcon reached supersonic speeds. 13 seconds later, the rocket was travelling through an area called of maximum dynamic pressure or “max-Q”. This region is where the rocket experiences the great amount of pressure due to Falcon’s speed and atmospheric pressures.

Falcon 9 launch as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Photo Credit: Mike Deep/Spaceflight Insider

At the 2.5-minute mark, the first stage engines are shut down, this is known as main engine cutoff or “MECO”. During this point in the flight, Falcon was travelling at speeds around ten times the speed of sound (Mach 10) and at an altitude of approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers). Following MECO, the first stage separated, making its way to the Atlantic in hopes of achieving the first ever barge landing.

Following stage separation, Falcon’s second stage activated its single Merlin vacuum engine, commencing a six-minute burn, and placing Dragon into low-Earth orbit. Dragon separated from the Falcon 9’s second stage approximately 10 minutes and 15 seconds after launch, and its solar arrays were deployed a few minutes later. SpaceX representatives said Dragon is in good shape, and was set to commence a series of burns over the next two days in order to be in good shape for Monday’s planned rendezvous with the orbiting laboratory.

In light of the Antares explosion, crews loaded this Dragon capsule with more scientific research investigations and supplies than any previous Dragon. Every crack and crevice was utilized. In total Dragon will carry 1,272 pounds (577 kilograms) of scientific research and hardware within the capsule, and 1,089 pounds (494 kilograms) of external payloads. This brings the total cargo Dragon is carrying to the space station, to over 5,200 pounds (2,350 kg) of supplies, experiments, and provisions. The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) will travel in Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section. Once unpacked, CATS will be attached to the exterior of the Japanese Experiment Module.

CATS is the fourth earth science mission in the past 11 months and the 2nd exterior payload to be transported by Dragon. With the current configuration of the ISS, there are a total of 20 slots available for external payloads. By the year 2018, NASA expects to have the majority filled, leaving only 1-2 open. One advantage CATS has to traditional orbiting satellites is an orbit of only 248 miles (400 kilometers), compared to 497 miles (800 kilometers).

Graphic illustrating Falcon's history as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Graphic illustrating Falcon’s history. Image Credit: Nathan Moeller/Spaceflight Insider

Another promising experiment making its way to the space station is out of Florida Tech and is called SABOL. This fully-autonomous and student designed experiment focuses on protein fiber formation, growth processes, and the relationship between protein fiber formation and neurodegenerative diseases. There is a process where tau-proteins self-assemble into long thin fibers. The resulting long protein fibers can form a gel that slows or even stops the nerve signals in the brain. In SABOL these fibers are formed in an acidic buffer solution.

Also on this flight are a number of experiments involving model organisms such as the common fruit fly, officially known as Drosophila memanogaster. Fruit flies have been used in research for decades and we can learn a lot about how human cells and systems react based on data from fruit fly research. Model organisms are studied because how they react to different factors will provide data about how other species will react to those same factors. Approximately 77 percent of disease genes that affect humans have analogs in the fruit fly genome.

Stunning view of the Falcon stage separation as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Stunning view of the Falcon stage separation. Photo Credit: Mike Howard/Spaceflight Insider

An new biological study will feature another model organism — the flatworm. With this experiment, researchers will be able to study how tissue regeneration is affected by gravity, as well as how damaged organs and nerves can repair themselves in a microgravity environment. Flatworms are capable of cellular regeneration; replacing cells after they are injured or as they age. This experiment will be able to [hopefully] identify the signaling mechanisms the flatworms use during their regeneration processes, enabling scientists to have new insight into how wounds heal in microgravity.

Another investigation, Micro-5, will explore how infections work in space. Through this research, scientists hope to better understand the risks associated with in-flight infections and long-duration spaceflight. Another model organism, Caenorhabditis elegans (roundworm) will be used to study the interaction between the host (the worm) and bacteria (samonella). The microbe Salmonella typhimurium is known to cause food poisoning in humans and has been shown in previous experiments to be more virulent in space.

Falcon sits on the pad, waiting to launch into the heavens as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Falcon sits on the pad, waiting to launch into the heavens. Photo Credit: Michael Seeley/Spaceflight Insider

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore will employ the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm, Canadarm2, to grapple Dragon, with the help of European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, after it completes a laser-guided approach on Monday Jan. 12. Dragon will then be berthed to the station’s Harmony module.

NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, issued a statement following his viewing of the launch. “We are delighted to kick off 2015 with our first commercial cargo launch of the year. ”

He went on to say, “Thanks to our private sector partners, we’ve returned space station resupply launches to U.S. soil and are poised to do the same with the transport of our astronauts in the very near future. Today’s launch not only resupplies the station, but also delivers important science experiments and increases the station’s unique capabilities as a platform for Earth science with delivery of the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS instrument. I congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams who have made today’s success possible. We look forward to extending our efforts in commercial space to include commercial crew by 2017 and to more significant milestones this year on our journey to Mars.”


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Reader Comments

Awesome article Amy! This world needs more Elon Musks, since he’s the closest as we’re going to get to Tony Stark! He’s got all the makings of a true pioneer: smart, hard working, forward thinking, a visionary, and enough of a risk taker to push the frontier out a little further for all of us. SpaceX has become our real space program, as it is not self-mired by the amount of bureaucratic and cumbersome craziness of government.

Awesome article Amy! This world needs more Elon Musks, since he’s the closest as we’re going to get to Tony Stark! He’s got all the makings of a true pioneer: smart, hard working, forward thinking, a visionary, and enough of a risk taker to push the frontier out a little further for all of us. SpaceX has become our real space program, as it is not self-mired by the amount of bureaucratic and cumbersome craziness of government.

That may change, since they’re gunning hard for military and government launches. The collision should be interesting to watch.

No, SpaceX has NOT become “our” space program.

“-the closest as we’re going to get to Tony Stark!”

Juvenile comic book hero worship does not a space program make. Space “travel” means going somewhere- there has to be a destination. Mars is a comic book destination while the Moon is the place Musk does not want to go. Why? Going to the Moon means his business plan for LEO tourism is no plan at all.

I agree with you Ben. Musk takes reasonable risks, and is not afraid of scrubbing a mission in order to ensure reasonable safety and success as well.

Excellent article Amy. Anxiously awaiting the next attempt. It would be interesting to know what kind of verticle speed SpaceX is trying to achieve at final landing to have a successful recovery.

This comment violated SFI’s commenting policy and has been deleted.

article title “FAILS TO LAND BOOSTER ON SHIP” is incorrect! You needed to add one more word: “SOFTLY”!
The F9 did land on the ship. It just landed hard. ps.Amy, excellent article. thank you
From the Basement of the Science Building.

does anyone know how much the Flight Termination System (FTS) weighs? at what point can the FTS be removed [and possibly replaced with more fuel]?

Daniel Wisehart

The FTS will always be flown, because if the rocket veers off course and–worst case–heads for a populated area, you always have to be ready to destroy it.

Great article along with some awesome photography!

I wonder if the first stage simply ran out of fuel just before touch down.

Hopefully the new Congress will now cancel SLS/Orion and de-fund NASA, and provide the funding thus saved for the far more efficient, modern, exciting commercial space sector. As Congressman Paul once said, “NASA is dead. It’s time to bury the carcass.”

NASA is not dead- it is the only reason SpaceX is alive.

“Despite all the barge hype,”
Thanks Amy. Exactly.
It is difficult to reconcile the rocket equation with what SpaceX, or Musk, or NASA, depending on who this is attributed to, is trying to achieve by landing on a barge. Unless there is some unobtainium in the works, landing back at the cape means very little payload is going into orbit. The expense of landing on the barge, added to refurbishing, means the “factor of 100” is, like making up the 50 percent chance of landing on the barge, more hype.

The comment recommending replacing the SLS is sad and disturbing. The first problem is that SpaceX is a long way from transporting anyone to the ISS. The second problem is that the ISS is….a 3 billion dollar a year problem all by itself that needs to be resolved. It will eventually be abandoned like the Salyut’s, Skylab, and Mir. 40 years of space stations going in circles- going nowhere, is enough. The third problem is what is next? 80,000 colonists on Mars by 2040 is…bizarre. The billions in tax dollars and free support handed over to SpaceX are being used to launch commercial satellites for profit while Musk tells fairy tales to his groupies.

The falcon has only marginally better performance than the Saturn I of 1961 and less than the up-rated Saturn IB of 1966. A half a century later and landing (crashing) a kerosene lower stage on a barge does not change that. What is SpaceX up to? I smell Bigelow and tourists.

Low Earth Orbit was left behind in 1968 by Apollo 8 but NASA’s desperate attempt to keep their infrastructure intact despite budget cuts has kept the U.S. trapped and going in circles since 1972. The do-everything-pay-for-itself cargo bay of dreams space shuttle killed two crews. Going cheap with New Space will not be any different. The SLS is the last hope of a once mighty space program that is now third-rate. The diversion and distraction of New Space and SpaceX is killing that last hope.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

“40 years of spinning in circles … going nowhere”

I am sorry, but correct me if I am wrong

Do we still send government employees and even private citizens to the Louisana purchase after we had Lewis & Clark visit it?

I can’t seem to remember….

What you just wrote only makes sense to you Ferris. I have no idea what you are talking about. Really.

You are implying that there isn’t value in going to LEO. That its going in circles.

I am asking you to apply that same logic to the Louisiana Purchase.

You are implying that there isn’t value in going to LEO. That its going in circles.

I am asking you to apply that same logic to the Louisiana Purchase.

(this may have posted twice – if it did, I apologize – my internet provider is being particularly stupid this weekend)

I am not “implying” that LEO has not value- I am SHOUTING it! LEO IS A DEAD END!

It ain’t Louisiana; it’s a vacuum. You might try assigning that analogy to the ice at the lunar poles.

LEO stopped being space in 1968 when Apollo 8 left it far behind. NASA went back because the purse strings were cut and they needed to keep their infrastructure intact with whatever they could afford. And what we got was circles at very high altitude going nowhere. Instead of a base on the Moon there was the “do-everything-pay-for-itself cargo bay of dreams.”

New Space is just the same stupid game in an even cheaper and more worthless package. You know why the Moon is not to be talked about? Because the only way to go there that makes sense is with a Super Heavy Lift Vehicle and that bypasses LEO and dumps the whole New Space manifesto in the trashcan.

The ice on the Moon should be the focus of the entire Human Space Fight community but instead we have the Musk cult flim flam. Now you can scream cheap and go through the standard list of New Space talking points. All of which sound great to someone who does not understand space flight but make little sense to anyone that does.

Re – its a vaccuum – by that definition, there should be no value in going to Geo. And yet, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that there are billions of dollars (certainly more than NASA receives) being spent on satellites going there. Or am I wrong?

As for a base on the moon – you can like it or hate it, but the American public has not been willing to fund a NASA style moon base, ever. They may like the idea of it, but there aren’t large numbers of people forcing Washington to figure out how to put a base on the moon (as opposed to any number of other things – health care, ISIS, immigration…). Now, they may be willing to fund a lower cost moonbase, but that means doing things differently than we’ve done in the past.

And lets talk briefly about the moon – I am curious as to why you claim that NewSpace is anti moon? I’ll grant Elon hasn’t expressed a major desire for the moon. But I can name multiple NewSpace companies that ARE interested in the moon, including the polar ice.

Final point – the issue isn’t super heavy lift vs _____. The issue is that I want to see a million people living in space (at any location of reason) by 2050. I have not heard how your choice system (whatever that might be), will enable that to happen, because I have not seen any discussion on how it lowers costs, or specifically enables LARGE numbers of people to get anywhere in space.

“-its a vaccuum – by that definition, there should be no value in going to Geo.”

Like I said, anybody that understands space flight knows what makes sense and what does not- and your arguments are the commonly used New Space obfuscation of every relevant detail. You compared LEO to Louisiana and I threw the B.S. flag so now you are trying to equate vacuum to the over 100 billion dollars a year of revenue generated by a handful of GEO satellites. Puh-leez. I would have to write several long paragraphs explaining how ridiculous your argument is. Why should I waste that chunk of my lifespan on you?

“-the issue isn’t super heavy lift vs _____. The issue is that I want to see a million people living in space-”

No, you just gave the game away; the issue IS heavy lift. Not what you want. Like all New Space fans you are programmed to reject any mention or association of Heavy Lift and the Moon. My original argument stands by itself; LEO is a dead end. The entire New Space manifesto of going cheap is a sham and facade to conceal the endgame which is LEO tourism for the ultra-rich.

Bandagin – If my arguements are “BS”, then they should be able to be responded to. I would hope because you value the idea of free and open dialogue, and therefore would respond. You haven’t actually addressed any of my points, and I am responding politely and nicely.

Re “reject the moon” – pray tell have I rejected the moon? I will grant I do not believe in “moon uber alles”, but I see a lot of potential on the moon (although I do tend to view it more at a medium term time frame). I’ve pointed out there are multiple NewSpace Companies doing moon stuff. So you’ll have to explain why you keep claiming that NewSpace is “anti-moon”.

Re “Heavy Lift” I am not anti-Heavy lift. In fact, there are more than a few interesting NewSpace ideas about Heavy lift. But you do have to make it affordable, and ultimately cheap. Or, do you believe that space will always be $10,000 per pound to orbit ie incredibly expensive.

Lets consider another side point – lets assume that we MUST have Super Heavy Lift of 100 metric tons (if you want a larger number, you can say 200 metric tons). How much of the NASA budget is that going to eat? And how much more money are you going to need to actually build a moonbase? And when does that collide with a NASA budget for human spaceflight that is less than a 10 billion a year?

All your arguments are just variations of screaming cheap. There is no cheap. If we want space travel we have to have a budget that will support Super Heavy Lift Vehicles. Anything less and all you get is circles going nowhere- and con artists promising Mars. New Space fans fight tooth and nail against heavy lift and the Moon at every opportunity and will argue about it ad infinitum. Just like you are doing; filling up the page. Argue with someone else.

Why can’t super heavy lift be cheap?

This will answer all your questions Ferris.

See, I would’ve argued that this does a better job


Bandagin, maybe try trolling half as hard… The rest of us are excited that new things are being tried that might make space more accessible… If you have a theory why Musks reusable rockets won’t work, then please state it.. And no, proclaiming over and over how knowledgeable you are, and how naive everyone else is, doesn’t impress anyone here.

Daniel Wisehart

Has anyone else watched the video of the launch:
and wondered what the shots are starting about 23:00 with all of the liquid? At 26:15 is looks almost surreal.

From comments made on the video of previous flights, I’m pretty sure that’s a view inside the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank as it goes weightless at main engine cutoff.

Prompt, what fluid is used in the control system of grid. Which run out.

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