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SpaceX takes rocket reusability to new heights with launch to space station

Alan Boyle
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA via YouTube)

For the first time, SpaceX has sent a refurbished Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station from a refurbished launch pad, atop a refurbished Falcon 9 rocket.

The Falcon lifted off at 10:35 a.m. ET (7:35 a.m. PT) today from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

It’s the first mission to take off from Pad 40 since an earlier Falcon 9 went up in flames during a pre-launch test in September 2016, doing significant damage to the complex.

It’s taken SpaceX that long to finish its repairs and upgrades. In the meantime, the California-based company has been using Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for Falcon 9 launches. Switching back to Pad 40 will free up 39A for the maiden launch of SpaceX’s super-sized Falcon Heavy rocket, a closely watched event that’s currently set for next month.

This week’s robotic cargo resupply mission marks a big first for NASA and SpaceX. Previous trips to the space station have relied on brand-new Falcon 9 boosters for their sendoffs, but SpaceX has been steadily building up an inventory of first-stage boosters recovered from past launches.

This time around, NASA gave its first go-ahead for the reuse of a “flight-proven” booster. This one first flew on a space station resupply mission (with a different refurbished Dragon) in June. The Dragon for this mission flew to the space station and back to Earth in 2015.

NASA’s space station program manager, Kirk Shireman, said the risks of flying a refurbished booster are about equal to those associated with a brand-new booster, although they may be different types of risks. If the mission turns out as expected, NASA may continue using flight-proven boosters.

Launch was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but was delayed to give SpaceX’s team more time to make sure the rocket was in good condition.

Rocket reusability is a key part of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s drive to make dramatic reductions in the cost of access to space — and eventually blaze a trail for affordable missions to Mars.

“This is the beginning of rapid and reliable reusability. … We want to be able to send thousands of people into space, not just tens, and so reusability is a very key part of that,” Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s Dragon mission manager, said during a pre-launch briefing.

SpaceX’s flight-proven Falcon 9 booster touches down at Landing Zone 1 in Florida. (NASA Photo)

Minutes after liftoff, the first-stage booster flew itself back to SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, not far from the launch pad in Cape Canaveral. That marked the 20th recovery of a Falcon 9 booster, with 14 of those recoveries coming this year.

The Falcon 9 booster’s return was heralded by a barrage of sonic booms that could be heard along Florida’s Space Coast.

“LZ1, the F9 has landed,” SpaceX’s launch team reported.

With all the logistical firsts, it’s easy to gloss over the main point of this week’s mission: delivering 4,800 pounds of cargo and material to support scores of science investigations on the space station. Among the payloads due for delivery are:

A machine created by a company called Made In Space that’s designed to demonstrate the production of fiber-optic filaments in the station’s zero-G environment. The experimental hardware could lead to large-scale manufacture of high-quality optical fiber for applications in space as well as on Earth:

An experiment to study how bone cells grow in the presence of a new kind of surgical bone adhesive called Tetranite. Researchers say zero-G provides a particularly good setting for simulating osteoporosis and seeing how well the adhesive works for boosting bone structure:

A drug delivery system that researchers hope can eventually be used to combat the muscle-wasting effects of long-term spaceflight. During the Dragon’s stay at the station, the implantable system will be tested on live mice:

An instrument known as the Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor, or TSIS-1. Its five-year mission: to measure the total amount of sunlight that falls on Earth and analyze how that light is distributed across wavelengths ranging from infrared to ultraviolet. The observations will help scientists monitor climate shifts and atmospheric phenomena such as ozone loss:

A space debris sensor that will be mounted on the station’s exterior to monitor impacts caused by small-scale space debris over a period of two to three years. The experiment should give researchers a better sense of the risks posed by objects smaller than 4 inches wide — which is the detection limit for ground-based sensors:

The uncrewed Dragon capsule is due to make its rendezvous on Sunday, when astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to pull in the spacecraft for its berthing. Over the course of a month, the crew will unload the Dragon and fill it back up with about 3,600 pounds of cargo to be returned to Earth.

At the end of its stay, the Dragon will be set loose for its descent and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. From there, it’ll be brought back to shore for unloading — and then the round of refurbishment might well begin anew.

This report was originally published on Dec. 11 and updated with today’s launch.

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