This Sunday, a routine SpaceX launch could turn revolutionary, as the spaceflight company tries for a third time to safely land its Falcon 9 rocket after takeoff. The uncrewed booster will be carrying the company’s Dragon cargo capsule, packed full of science experiments and supplies to bring to the crew of the International Space Station. Yet many will be waiting eagerly after the launch is over to see if the rocket finds its way to its landing pad.
SpaceX holds a contract with NASA’s Commercial Cargo Resupply (CRS) Program to launch a number of cargo resupply missions to the station through 2017. The upcoming launch marks the seventh planned mission for SpaceX under the program.
The exciting part of the launch isn’t really the launch itself — it’s the landing
This particular mission will be the first resupply launch after Russia’s Progress spacecraft malfunctioned in April. The Progress — which was stocked full of food, science experiments, and other supplies — ceased communication with ground control shortly after launching into space and started spinning wildly out of control. It later burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Fortunately, NASA says this SpaceX launch is mostly unaffected by the Progress mishap; SpaceX made only a few adjustments to make up for the failed resupply mission. But even if Sunday’s launch were to take a fiery turn, things would still be fine for the station’s crew. "Nothing on that Progress that was lost was irreplaceable," NASA spokesperson Rob Navias tells The Verge. "The station has more than enough supplies to last well into the year, even if another supply ship did not arrive."
The exciting part of the launch isn’t really the launch itself, or the resupply — it’s the landing. Since January, SpaceX has been trying to safely land the majority of its Falcon 9 rocket on a free floating barge. It’s a feat that would be revolutionary if done right. All current rockets are either destroyed or regarded somewhat like trash after takeoff, left to burn up or fall to the bottom of the ocean. If SpaceX can keep most of its rockets intact after launch, then it can reuse them and make spaceflight a hell of a lot cheaper.
SpaceX has tried this landing technique twice so far this year. Its first attempt in January was an explosive one; the main shaft of the Falcon 9 was able to guide itself to the floating spaceport, but the rocket ran out of the fuel needed to slow it down. The result: the rocket hit the barge hard and fast in what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk dubbed a "rapid unscheduled disassembly."
In April, the company tried again. Video of the attempt shows the rocket gently lowering itself down to the barge while remaining upright. But it began to tilt — and then fall, leading to another explosion.
Perhaps this third time will be the charm for SpaceX. If so, Musk could usher in a new era of affordable spaceflight, and maybe get himself that volcano lair he’s been eyeing.
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