SpaceX LIVE: Dragon Splashes Back Down to Earth, What's Next For Elon Musk? (+ Video)


SpaceX has launched the first private mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX will attempt to meet multiple objectives on this mission, including launching their Dragon capsule into space via their Falcon 9 rockets, having the Dragon capsule perform a list of maneuvers once in space, and docking with the International Space Station. 

Once docked with the ISS, astronauts can access supplies within the Dragon Capsule. None of these supplies are vital to life on the ISS, and if the mission is aborted, no harm will come from not receiving them.

UPDATE: Thursday 12:10 p.m. SpaceX Dragon Returns Home: From the Wall Street Journal: The first private spacecraft to visit the International Space Station made a dramatic return flight home early Thursday to a precise, graceful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the Southern California coastline.

Guided by a trio of 116-feet diameter parachutes after a searing reentry through the atmosphere, the safe descent of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s unmanned Dragon capsule capped a historic nine-day voyage.

The test flight sparked unprecedented worldwide interest in commercial space ventures, intended to carry cargo and astronauts into orbit later in this decade for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Thursday May 30: The world’s first commercial supply ship is closed up and ready for a Thursday flight back to Earth from the International Space Station.

Astronauts sealed the hatch to the SpaceX Dragon capsule on Wednesday. It’s loaded with 1,400 pounds of experiments and old equipment for return to NASA.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, the astronauts will use the station’s robot arm to release the Dragon. The spacecraft will aim for a splashdown in the Pacific later in the morning, about 500 miles southwest of Los Angeles.

Saturday May 26 9:38 a.m. Astronauts Float Inside SpaceX Dragon Capsule: Reuters has reported that astronauts aboard the International Space Station opened the hatch and floated inside a Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon capsule on Saturday.

Running ahead of schedule, station commander Oleg Kononenko and flight engineer Don Pettit opened the hatch to Dragon just before 6 a.m. EDT. The bell-shaped capsule, which was making its second test flight, arrived at the space station on Friday.

The crew wore protective masks and goggles, but the interior of Dragon, which is 350 cubic feet (10 cubic meters), about the size of a large walk-in closet, proved clean. ?"There was no sign of any kind of (debris) floating around," Pettit radioed to Mission Control. ?"It kind of reminds me of the cargo capability that I could put in the back of my pickup truck. And the smell inside smells like a brand new car," he added.

Dragon carries about 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of food and other supplies for the station, all non-essential items because NASA and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, did not know beforehand if it would actually make it to the station.

Friday 10:00 a.m. Dragon and ISS Makes Contact (Finally): According to MSNBC, the International Space Station's crew reached out with a robotic arm to grab SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule and brought it in for the orbital outpost's first-ever hookup with a commercial spaceship.

The stakes are high for this encounter: It marks the first arrival of a U.S.-made spacecraft at the station since last year's retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet, and potentially opens the way for dozens of orbital cargo shipments. If the long-range plan unfolds as NASA hopes, U.S. astronauts could be shuttled back and forth on the Dragon or similar spacecraft within just a few years.

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Friday 9:45 a.m. SpaceX Dragon in Final ISS Docking Approach: From NASA: “The SpaceX Dragon capsule has resumed its approach toward the International Space Station from a distance of 250 meters. It will head up to 235 meters, at which point the crew will begin to issue a series of retreat commands, testing the capability to abort at the rendezvous if required. This process will continue until Dragon reaches the 30-meter mark."


Friday 8 a.m. Dragon to Dock With ISS: NASA said it has given the go ahead for the first private spacecraft to proceed toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station on Friday.

The unmanned SpaceX Dragon that launched Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, has successfully completed all tests so far in preparation for a docking, the space agency said.

"The International Space Station mission management team completed a thorough review of the progress ... and ... unanimously authorized the International Space Station and Dragon flight control teams to proceed toward rendezvous and berthing," the NASA website said.

The capture of the spacecraft by the station's robotic arm is expected to take place around 8 a.m. ET, said Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman.

Friday 12:30 a.m. Dragon Will Soon Dock With ISS, Says NASA: In recent days, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has performed some interesting orbital ballet around the station, coming within a few miles, backing away, and then coming in close again. Dragon is expected to come to its closest approach, just 32 feet from the ISS, which will be its final hold position, known as a capture point.

The space station will then use a robotic arm to dock the spacecraft with the station’s Harmony node. Though Dragon is an autonomous ship, the station crew will be in careful control of the entire event for safety purposes. Check back with us again tomorrow to see coverage of the station crew opening Dragon’s hatch and unloading its cargo.

Thursday 11:30 p.m. Tune in May 24 at 11 p.m. PDT (7 a.m. GMT) to see a live feed of SpaceX taking its next historic step: a rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Here's an overview of the mission: 

Thursday 10:40 a.m. Falcon 9 Rocket Nears ISS

Watch Live:

SpaceX's Dragon capsule flew close below the International Space Station on Thursday, completing tests it needed to pass before attempting to berth at the outpost Friday morning.

A communications link was lost as the commercial cargo craft passed less than two miles below around 7:30 a.m. EDT, but cameras caught the first approach to the station by a commercial vehicle.

The Dragon appeared first as a small dot against a cloudy Earth. As it flew to within 1.5 miles, its solar array wings could clearly be seen.

Earlier, station crew members successfully tested their ability to send commands to the unmanned Dragon during the berthing operation.

Tuesday 3:44 a.m. SpaceX's launch went off without a hitch this morning, making history as the first private company to launch a vessel to the space station. The Dragon reached orbit 9 minutes into the flight. The Falcon's nine engines kept firing all the way through liftoff (unlike on Saturday).

Monday 11:30 p.m. SpaceX is the Future: From PolicyMic Pundit Christine Harbin

Take two! Tonight On Tuesday morning SpaceX will make its second attemptat launching a spacecraft destined for the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft was supposed to launch over the weekend, but SpaceX aborted the mission at the very last second because of a technical glitch, which has since been fixed.

This is a step in the right direction to getting space travel off the taxpayer's dole, but we have a long way to go. As I commented before on PolicyMic, public-private partnerships open up an opportunity for cronyism; the government may award benefits to their friends and pass risk onto taxpayers. The federal government has promised to give over $2 billion to help SpaceX carry cargo to the International Space Station over the next several years — who knows if this money is being spent wisely. 

American taxpayers should hope that this mission goes off with a bang. I hope that it does. It shows that government does not have to be the sole provider of space travel; it shows that the private sector can step up to the plate. There is a huge profit incentive with space flight, and investors and private companies will likely rush in as soon as the government lets go of its monopoly and gets out of the way.  

If all goes well with SpaceX, then perhaps more commercial U.S. spacecraft will be able to enter the market for space travel. It may free up resources for bigger projects, such as missions to Mars. It may open up space to tourism. It may do a number of things — we don't know what we don't know. It's good that the U.S. is giving private space travel a fighting chance.

Monday 4:20 p.m. Saturday SpaceX Launch Wasn't a Failure: And here's why, from PolicyMic pundit Charlotte Kiang

At 4:55 a.m. on Saturday, hordes of space enthusiasts held their breath as engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center prepared to see SpaceX’s  Falcon 9 rocket off to the International Space Station (ISS) — a mission which, if successful, would have been the first private one to accomplish its aim of being the first private vehicle to dock with the station. As the countdown timer at Cape Canaveral, Fla. neared zero, the rocket’s engines revved before shutting down with half a second to go. With the spacecraft still grounded, the mission was soon officially aborted, and 3:44 a.m. on Tuesday, May 22 was given as the potential time for SpaceX’s next attempt.

To sync up with the ISS’ orbit, the rocket must be launched during a near-instantaneous window that grows earlier by approximately 20 minutes per day. Thus, even the slightest errors mandate that the mission be shelved for the day, resulting in a highly anticlimactic experience for those watching. But in spite of this temporary disappointment, there are still many reasons to be optimistic about SpaceX and its potential as a future space industry pioneer.

1) An aborted mission is not a failed one. While it is easy to view Saturday’s events as a mistake, it should be noted that the Falcon 9 did, in fact, exactly what it was supposed to do: It recognized a faulty check valve on one of its 9 engines and shut down. Failing to do so would have made it impossible for the Dragon to reach the ISS, and would have caused the destruction of the vehicle, costing SpaceX millions of dollars. Getting into space is not an easy task, as both the American and Russian space programs have seen on multiple occasions (last year in particular saw many unmanned mission failures from Russia’s Soyuz capsule program), and bumps along the road to new enterprise are to be expected. Thus, rather than as a failed mission, Saturday’s launch should be seen as a successful launch abort.

2) For a scrubbed mission, a 72-hour turnaround is exceptional. Although all eyes are currently on SpaceX in the wake of the Shuttle program, one must recall that even during the heyday of the Shuttle, NASA missions were occasionally aborted post-ignition. In the case of STS-68, this resulted in a month-and-a-half delay from the originally scheduled launch time, as the error required replacing of an engine. The Falcon 9, however, has been more-efficiently designed to be ignited multiple times, minimizing the delay between launch attempts.

3) SpaceX has already made leaps and bounds for the space industry. In 2010, the company became the first private one to recover a spacecraft from low earth orbit with an earlier iteration of the Falcon 9 and Dragon — a feat that has been accomplished by only a handful of countries. This result waxes optimistic for the future of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which has awarded contracts to Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Virginia, in addition to SpaceX. While the U.S. government will not profit directly from private space companies’ successes, these companies' efforts will stimulate the economy far more than the current $60 million payments made to Russia for each seat aboard their Soyuz capsules.

4) NASA knows what it is doing with its funds. Although the Falcon 9 won SpaceX one of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts, the company’s receipt of funds iscontingent on their success in achieving the objective of the COTS program (i.e., to ferry cargo to and from the ISS). As CEO Elon Musk has confirmed, SpaceX will receive full payment for their three demo flights only if they manage this. While some private investors may be deterred by a launch delay or aborted mission, the effect of such an incident is nowhere near as devastating to the taxpayer dollar as a failed Shuttle launch.

Saturday 5:14 a.m. The anticipated launch of SpaceX has been aborted in final seconds due to technical difficulties currently bening evaluated. Next launch opportunity will be this Tuesday, may 22.  

Saturday 5:06 a.m. SpaceX crew currently reviewing the aborted launch data. 

Saturday 4:59 a.m. Next launch opportunity will be on Tuesday May 22. 

Saturday 4:55 a.m. Ignition aborted. Securing vehicle and pad systems. A shutdown condition has been experienced just after ignition.  

Saturday 4:50 a.m. Today's launch, the second ever under the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Service (COTS) program, is ready to go as The SpaceX launch team has just completed they're poll.

Saturday 4:40 a.m. Weather has been upgraded to 80% acceptable while launch team is not reporting any technical issues so far.

Saturday 4:25 a.m. Dragon C2/3 "Cargo Manifest":

• Food and crew provissions (306 Kilograms)

• Utilization payloads (21 Kilograms)

• Cargo bags (123 Kilograms)

• 4 computers and supplies (10 kilograms)

Saturday 4:15 a.m. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that "this is actually a difficult launch from the perspective of the launch window" as "we have a near-instantaneous launch window, so if by 4:55 and a couple of seconds we haven't lifted off, we will have to scrub." The narrow liftoff opportunity is necessary for Dragon to catch up to the space station in orbit without expending an excess of fuel. Falcon 9's tanks were loaded with liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel a few hours before launch. The flight will be the third for a Falcon 9 and the second for a Dragon. 

Saturday 3:54 a.m. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is all fueled up and ready to go for Saturday's scheduled launch of the first commercial spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. The unmanned rocket is due to blast off from a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Station at 4:55 a.m. ET. And, if everything goes well, Dragon will be in the vicinity of the space station for a series of maneuvers on Monday, leading to a hook up a day later.    

Saturday: 12:30 a.m. Assuming that the launch is successful, SpaceX is prepared to tackle even greater challenges in the future. Eventually, the company plans to send astronauts to the ISS, a feat that will require much more preparation. SpaceX also announced they have partnered with Bigelow Airspace to provide space experiences to tourists. SpaceX will focus on getting people into space, where they will board Bigelow’s space habitat.

Friday 11:39 p.m. Though some NASA supporters seem to be mourning what they see as the decline of U.S. leadership in space,  they should instead be celebrating the dawn of a new era, as turning over space trucking to private industry has its benefits. Namely, the low-cost possibility of going beyond the low orbit exploration projects NASA has been stuck in for several decades.