A SpaceX launch from the Kennedy Space Center, to resupply the International Space Station, proceeded successfully on Sunday morning. The launchpad off the central Florida coast has a rich history, as the starting point for a range of famous Nasa missions, but has been not been in use since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
The launch was a milestone for the SpaceX company, which has long planned to make space travel more affordable by reusing rocket boosters than were traditionally used only once, despite their high price tag. The booster landed successfully at Cape Canaveral after deploying landing legs and firing thruster engines, landing gently 9 minutes after takeoff. The Dragon capsule successfully entered into orbit moments later, its solar arrays successfully deployed, on its way to bring 5,500 pounds of supplies, experiments, and equipment to the six astronauts aboard the space station. The Dragon capsule will reach the station 2 days after launch, where it will be secured by a 57 foot robotic arm.
The launch had been scheduled for Saturday, but was delayed for 24 hours, when SpaceX engineers discovered that “the movement trace of an upper stage engine steering hydraulic piston was slightly odd,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“If this is the only issue, flight would be fine, but need to make sure that it isn’t symptomatic of a more significant upstream root cause. That 1% chance isn’t worth rolling the dice. Better to wait a day,” said Musk on Twitter.
The cargo aboard the Dragon capsule incudes an experimental spacecraft navigation system, a medical experiment studying immune system diseases, an instrument to measure gases in the atmosphere, and a device to measure lightning intensities around the world. The capsule will then be used to return other experiments back to scientists on Earth.
SpaceX has secured 1.6 billion dollars of government contracts for resupply missions, on top of hundreds of millions more for private companies to put satellites into orbit.
Elon Musk has expressed hopes for launching manned missions, last year announcing a plan to reach Mars in a first ever private, unammed mission. However, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said Friday that the project’s 2020 launch had been delayed.
“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” Shotwell said.