CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX launched its 21st rocket of the year today (August 29) and sent a robotic Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) before landing at sea.
A two-stage Falcon 9 rocket launched from Launch Complex 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:14 a.m. EDT (0714 GMT), starting the company’s 23rd cargo resupply mission to NASA’s space lab. The Dragon is packed with more than 2,200 pounds of supplies, science experiments and hardware, including a new robotic arm that will be tested in the space station’s Bishop Airlock.
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Just under eight minutes after launch, the Falcon 9’s first stage returned to Earth and landed on one of the SpaceX‘s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean in a smooth landing. The massive ship, dubbed “A Shortfall of Gravitas,” is the latest of three drone ships in the company’s fleet of salvage craft that catch falling boosters and return them to port for later reuse.
“That’s the 90th successful landing of an orbital-class rocket and the first-ever for our newest drone ship, ‘A Shortfall of Gravitas,’” said SpaceX’s Andy Tran during a webcast of this morning’s launch. “What a great way to start today’s mission.”
Related: How SpaceX’s Dragon space capsule works (infographic)
Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the station on Monday (Aug. 30) around 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) and dock at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. There is already another SpaceX vehicle in the orbit lab: the Crew Dragon “Endeavour”, which launched on April 23, with a crew of four astronauts. (It’s not the first time two dragons have been parked at the same time. In fact, at least one dragon has docked at the space station every day so far in 2021.)
Weather officials from the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted dubious weather for the mission’s first launch attempt, scheduled for Aug. 28. Unfortunately, bad weather at the launch site caused a 24 hour delay.
Fortunately, the forecast improved dramatically overnight and Falcon 9 was able to take off as expected.
The booster of the first stage in today’s flight, known as B1061, was a triple kite. The launcher now has four missions to its credit, having lifted its third Dragon spacecraft.
Today’s landing marked the 90th recovery of a Falcon first stage since SpaceX restored its first booster in 2015.
Related: Watch a SpaceX rocket ace landing on a drone ship in stunning new video
The newly launched cargo that Dragon carries a wealth of scientific research to the orbital outpost, including a new robotic arm that will be tested in the station’s newest airlock. As part of a technology demonstration, the robotic arm will flip switches and push buttons in an effort to prove it has what it takes to perform routine astronaut tasks.
Also on board are various medical payloads that will benefit both astronauts and humans on Earth. One of those payloads, the Nanofluidic Implant Communication Experiment (NICE), will test a new drug delivery device. The tiny implant could change the way people get their medications and deal with chronic illnesses.
Traditional means of drug delivery include bulky pumps, but that could soon change. The device would be implanted in a patient’s arm and deliver drugs at fixed intervals, allowing the patient to live their life, the researchers said. This type of device would be incredibly helpful for patients such as those with rheumatoid arthritis and those who need to take medication at any time of the day.
Another experiment, called MISSE-15, will look at different materials and how they react to the space environment. Samples of things like concrete, solar panels and more will be exposed to the harsh environment of space to test potential materials for new spacecraft and much more.
But that is not everything. According to Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager for NASA, the crew will also receive some special treats in the form of fresh food and even ice cream.
“We’re sending a good amount of fruit,” Montalbano said at a prelaunch press conference on Friday (Aug. 27). “We have lemons, onions, some avocados, some cherry tomatoes and also some ice cream. That’s a big hit with our crew.”
In total, there is more than 2,200 kg of cargo that will help the astronauts conduct a variety of research experiments and resupply the station.
It was a busy summer at the station, with the arrival and installation of new solar panels, a new Russian Science Module, and a Northrop Grumman Cygnus freighter.
“Working with SpaceX and working with our other commercial providers has just been an excellent partnership that we’ve built between NASA and the commercial industry,” Montalbano said. “We are excited to launch this mission and get this incredible science to the station.”
A new generation of dragons
The gumdrop-shaped capsule is the third improved Dragon cargo ship after SpaceX. is launched to the station stopped previous version of Cargo Dragon in 2020. It is also the third to be launched on this particular Falcon 9.
Designed to hold approximately 20% more payload, the current model is nearly identical to its crewed counterpart and is larger inside than its predecessor.
The craft can even store propelled payloads while in orbit and can stay on station twice as long as the previous freight dragons. Another major upgrade is that the freighters will now splash into the Atlantic (as opposed to the Pacific from previous flights), providing a faster return on science.
That means researchers can get their samples and data back faster — in just four to nine hours after landing. And SpaceX can get the vehicle back sooner and start performing inspections and maintenance for the Dragon’s next flight.
Because the newer version of Dragon is better equipped to handle the stress of a water landing, SpaceX’s teams can inspect and refurbish it faster, with less downtime between flights. The Dragon Flying Today was first launched on CRS-21 last year and now has two flights under its wing.
When it docks at the orbital outpost on Monday morning, two previously flown Dragons will be parked at the same time.
Sarah Walker of SpaceX, who leads the company’s Dragon program, says this is the fourth Dragon to launch this year, with another expected to launch before the end of 2021.
In fact, this will be the third year in a row that at least four Dragon spacecraft have been launched, Walker said. She also said that at least one Dragon spacecraft has been parked near the ISS every day so far this year.
This flight is the 21st for SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 so far this year, marking 105 consecutive successful missions since the company’s failed launch in 2015. (A second anomaly occurred on the trail in 2016.)
It also marks the 90th successful recovery of a first-stage booster for the company.
Today’s flight featured an experienced Falcon 9 rocket. The booster, known as B1061, now has four successful flights under its belt, three of which have brought different Dragon spacecraft to the space station. It is the first SpaceX flight from the Cape in nearly two months. The company’s latest flight, which launched on June 30, took more than 80 small satellites into space, on a rideshare mission called Transporter-2.
The lull in launches could put a damper on SpaceX’s plan to launch an estimated 40 rockets by 2021, most of which would launch its own Starlink satellites into space. Unfortunately, the necessary upgrades to the satellites took longer than expected, leading to a temporary suspension of the launch. But now the company is back in business with a busy fall ahead, including the launch of the Crew-3 mission to the space station and Inspiration4, which will send four civilians into orbit.
SpaceX relies on a fleet of reusable rockets to maintain a high launch frequency. This means that instead of using a brand new rocket every time, the company can fly over its restored boosters many times over.
That’s thanks to a set of upgrades the Falcon 9 received in 2018, as well as a fleet of drone ships to capture the returning boosters.
SpaceX now has three of these massive ships: “Of course I still love you,” “Just read the instructions,” and the newest ship around,”A lack of gravity.”
The company recently sent “Of Course I Still Love You” on a trip to the West Coast, where the boat will facilitate recovery operations for missions launched from SpaceX’s California-based launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base.
After years as CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk promised the arrival of a new drone ship, “A Shortfall of Gravitas”, arrived in Port Canaveral on July 15. The massive ship is completely autonomous and even able to drive itself to the recovery zone where it will wait for returning boosters. (The company’s other two ships must be towed by a tugboat.)
For its first mission, ASOG was tug to the landing zone, where it made its first successful catch less than eight minutes after takeoff.
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