SpaceX Dragon Capsule Blasts Off for Space Station
An unmanned cargo ship loaded with spare parts, science equipment and crew supplies -- including ice cream treats -- rocketed into orbit Sunday and set off after the International Space Station, kicking off a new era of commercial resupply flights intended to restore a U.S. supply chain that was crippled by the shuttle's retirement.
The Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rocket, both built by Space Exploration Technologies, roared to life with a rush of fiery exhaust at 8:35:07 p.m. EDT, quickly climbing away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Making its first operational flight under a $1.6 billion NASA contract, the 157-foot-tall Falcon 9 arced away on a northeasterly trajectory paralleling the East Coast of the United States, putting on a spectacular evening sky show for area residents and tourists.
Liftoff was timed to roughly coincide with the moment Earth's rotation carried the pad into the plane of the space station's orbit, the only way for the spacecraft to catch up with its 5-mile-per-second target.
Generating more than 855,000 pounds of thrust, the Falcon 9 went supersonic one minute and 10 seconds after launch as its nine first stage Merlin engines boosted the spacecraft out of the dense lower atmosphere.
Just over three minutes after liftoff, the first stage fell away and a single second stage engine continued the push to orbit. Live television views from a camera mounted at the base of the second stage showed the engine nozzle glowing cherry red against the black of space as the rocket climbed toward orbit.
The second stage appeared to operate normally and the Dragon capsule was released about 10 minutes and 24 seconds after liftoff. A few moments later, cameras showed the capsule's two solar arrays unfolding and locking in place.
Launched into an initially elliptical orbit with a high point of 204 miles and a low point of around 126 miles, the spacecraft will carry out a complex computer-orchestrated series of rendezvous rocket firings to catch up with the space station early Wednesday.
Unlike Russian, European and Japanese cargo craft that routinely visit the station, the SpaceX Dragon capsule was designed to make round trips to and from the lab complex, giving it the ability to bring major components and experiment samples back to Earth for the first time since shuttles stopped flying last year.
"Not only is it going to give us a consistent supply chain up, but very critical, particularly to biological research, is the return mass, to be able to have frozen samples returned home," said space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini. "This really is the keystone to what is going to allow space station to do what it was built to do. It's critical to the success of the station."
If all goes well, station commander Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will use the lab's robot arm to grapple the Dragon capsule around 7:22 a.m. Wednesday, maneuvering it to a berthing at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module.