Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Super Sunday


Click the arrow to watch the launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 demonstration mission. Video source: SpaceX.

Space advocates on Twitter are calling it Super Sunday.

Within five hours, two NewSpace companies — Orbital Sciences and SpaceX — made history today, demonstrating the viability of their technologies.

At 7:00 AM EDT, the International Space Station crew captured the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, one of two NewSpace robotic spacecraft developed under NASA's commercial cargo program. Using the station's Canadarm2, European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano attached Cygnus to the ISS at 8:44 AM EDT.

The successful delivery gives the United States two 21st Century cargo delivery vehicles.

The other, the SpaceX Dragon, showed its stuff during a May 2012 demo flight. Dragon delivered cargo to the ISS in October 2012 and March 2013. It appears that its next delivery will be in February 2014.

That delivery will be atop an upgraded version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. This version, also called by some the Falcon 9 version 1.1 or the Falcon 9R, launched for the first time at 12:00 PM EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California.

U.S. Air Force representatives gave the launch only a 50-50 chance of success, based on past experience with test launches. SpaceX founder Elon Musk went out of his way to remind everyone this was only a test, and rolled the dice by testing not only upgraded Merlin engines, but also a new nine-engine configuration, a longer first stage, and payload fairing to protect his first commercial satellite customer. If that wasn't enough, he was also going to test new technology that he hoped would one day allow SpaceX to fly back the first and second stages for eventual re-use.

No pressure.

But Elon pulled off another miracle, accomplishing nearly all the mission objectives.

According to various Twitter posts by Jeff Foust at SpacePolitics.com from the post-launch media event, Musk said the next SpaceX commercial cargo delivery will be in February. The upgraded Falcon 9 may have landing "legs" which will help test the viability of steering the first stage back to a pad for landing and reuse. Musk said he was looking at the “eastern tip of Cape Canaveral” for a landing site.

My guess is he's referring to Launch Complex 36, once used for Atlas-Centaur launches but now operated by Space Florida. The state agency hopes to lure commercial companies to launch from the complex. Masten Systems signed a letter of intent with Space Florida on November 22, 2010 to use LC-36, but so far hasn't shown up despite a statement that day on their web site claiming they hoped to fly a demonstration launch from there sometime in 2011.

Musk also said he's targeting the second quarter of 2014 to launch a pad abort test for the crewed version of Dragon from their current facility at the Cape's LC-40.

When presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke at Titusville on August 2, 2008, he vowed to “close the gap” created in January 2004 when the Bush administration announced that the Space Shuttle would be retired once the ISS was completed.

Dragon and Cygnus now fly. We're halfway there.

With the federal government about to shut down due to petty politics on Capitol Hill, today's successes are more proof that NewSpace is the key to saving the U.S. space program.

Its biggest critics, ironically, have been those same members of Congress who are now too busy playing blind man's bluff to notice they were totally and completely wrong.


Click the arrow to watch highlights of the Cygnus berth at the ISS. Video source: NASA.


Click the arrow to watch the post-berth media event. Video source: NASA.

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