Sunday, April 10, 2016

Dual Success For SpaceX

It's been a weekend of amazing successes for SpaceX. The private space company delivered its eighth Dragon resupply capsule to the International Space Station and stuck an experimental landing of the spent Falcon 9 booster rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic. SpaceX has previously tried landing the first stage of a Falcon 9 used in missions. Both times, the rocket made it to its target on the drone ship, but failed to land upright, resulting in RUD events (rapid unscheduled disassembly).

This tweet from early Sunday morning, April 10, shows Dragon safely docked to the ISS Harmony module, next to an Orbital Sciences' Cygnus cargo craft and a Soyuz crew capsule on the lower right. In total, six spacecraft are currently docked to the International Space Station.

But let's go back to launch day, Friday, April 8, and take a look at all that SpaceX accomplished this weekend:

Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 with its Dragon payload on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral

Image credit: SpaceX
Mission patch for SpaceX's eighth commercial resupply mission (CRS-8) to the International Space Station

If you look closely, you'll find the patch full of interesting details. For example, the eight stars in the design represent the eight missions to the ISS that SpaceX has flown so far, with one star dimmed out to symbolize last June's failed launch.

Image credit: SpaceX
Close-up of Dragon capsule atop Falcon 9, which stands over 200 feet (60 m) tall

Image credit: Space X
Graphic illustrating the stages of launch, landing and mission completion (click to enlarge)

The drone ship name in the above graphic is Just Read The Instructions. The ship on which Falcon 9 stuck its historic landing is Of Course I Still Love You.

The following trio of still pictures captured by SpaceX's chaser plane near the drone ship shows the landing's most breath-taking moments. This is the first time that SpaceX has successfully landed a rocket used in a mission on a drone ship at sea. The private space company previously succeeded at landing a Falcon 9 first stage on-shore.

Image credit: SpaceX

Image credit: SpaceX

Image credit: SpaceX

Whether Falcon 9's first stage lands on a drone ship or on shore after delivering a payload depends on several factors. Elon Musk explained some of them on Twitter.

Following are two tweets from SpaceX with landing video clips that were posted to the company's twitter account within hours of the landing.

Here is SpaceX's 36-minute launch and landing live webcast. About 30 seconds in, a legend appears at the bottom that lists the consecutive events being covered. It is well worth the time to review the launch and what SpaceX labeled "experimental landing". While the landing is one of the most jaw-dropping and certainly the most historic aspect of the CRS-8 mission, a successful landing was not the primary mission objective. That was getting a Dragon resupply capsule, including its important science cargo, safely to the International Space Station. SpaceX succeeded on both counts, with several cherries on top.

The reactions from employees at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA after the successful launch and landing on Friday say it all. Elon Musk and the team at SpaceX have mastered another crucial step towards routine usage of reusable rockets, drastically lowering the cost of reaching targets in orbit and beyond and making space more accessible than ever before. SpaceX plans to re-fly a used rocket within a few months.

Video credit: SpaceX
Live webcast from SpaceX's headquarters during Friday's successful launch to the ISS and landing on one of the company's drone ship.

Below is the Storify of my live tweets and conversations during Friday's pre-launch, launch and landing events, with some additional remarks for this blog post.