Ambitious test flight
SpaceX's ambitious reusable rocket test is only a secondary goal for the company today, but if successful it could lead to rocket innovations that may dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based company plans to launch its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from a pad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:58 p.m. EDT (2058 GMT). The main mission: To launch a robotic Dragon space capsule on SpaceX's third delivery flight for NASA as part of a $1.6 billion resupply contract.
But even as SpaceX prepared its Dragon cargo ship for launch, the company was working behind the scenes to take advantage of the flight for its internal reusable rocket program. The Falcon 9 rocket launching today has a first stage equipped with four large landing legs, each one of them 25 feet (7.6 meters) long.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship stand atop its Florida launch pad ahead of a planned April 14, 2014 launch to the International Space Station. The mission for NASA will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Credit: NASA TV
If all goes well, the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage will separate as planned during launch, then perform a long re-entry engine burn to slow its supersonic descent back to Earth. SpaceX officials hope the rocket stage will deploy the legs as it descends and perform a final landing maneuver just over the ocean's surface before toppling over into the water to be retrieved by a recovery team.
"The entire recovery of the first stage is entirely experimental, " Koenigsmann said. "It has nothing to do with the primary mission here."
Today's mission will mark the third of 12 planned SpaceX Dragon cargo missions to the International Space Station for NASA. SpaceX launched the first flight in 2012, with a second following in 2013.
"We've been doing improvements to the recovery of the first stage in little steps, being very careful it doesn't affect the performance of Dragon, " Koenigsmann said.
NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters Sunday (April 13) that once he was convinced SpaceX's Falcon 9 landing legs posed no threat to Dragon's cargo delivery to the station, he was eager to see how the test would unfold today.
SpaceX's road to reusability
Developing a completely reusable rocket technology has been a long-range goal for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as a way to reduce the cost of spaceflight. In 2011, Musk unveiled a plan for reusable rockets that envisioned SpaceX booster stages capable of flying back to landing pads on their own, as well as Dragon space capsules with the ability to touch down on land. (SpaceX Dragons currently splash down in the ocean).
Reusable rockets could substantially cut the costs of spaceflight, according to Musk. SpaceX's standard Falcon 9 rocket launches cost between $50 million...
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