SpaceX has successfully launched a flight-proven Cargo Dragon spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station (ISS), confirmed just a few minutes after Falcon 9 booster B1056 performed a flawless landing on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY).
Carrying approximately 2500 kg (5500 lb) of cargo, Dragon will now spend approximately 48 hours rendezvousing with the ISS and is scheduled to begin berthing operations early Monday morning, May 6th. Safely landed aboard OCISLY, SpaceX’s recovery fleet should be able to return B1056 to Port Canaveral as few as 6-12 hours from now, depending on sea states and the booster’s condition.
Just a minute or so after B1056 touched down, Falcon 9’s MVac upper stage engine shut down and Cargo Dragon capsule C113 – outfitted with a fresh trunk section – safely separated. The spacecraft then began its own series of on-orbit checkouts, deployed its solar arrays, and armed its system of 12 Draco maneuvering thrusters.
Dragon will spend two days in the rendezvous phase, slightly boosting and tweaking its own orbit until its trajectory more or less intersects with the Space Station’s. NASA will offer live coverage of the spacecraft’s ISS arrival, beginning several hours beforehand and tracking through approach, capture, and berthing. Once completed, ISS’s crew of astronauts can begin unloading the several thousand pounds of internal cargo and prepare to withdraw unpressurized payloads (OCO-3 and STP-H6) from Dragon’s trunk.
The first of many
Meanwhile, SpaceX has finally managed to recover one of its Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters after an exceptionally gentle Earth reentry and landing. Soon after its launch debut, B1056 separated from S2 and Dragon and began its boost back to shore at a downright relaxing ~1.6 km/s (Mach 4.7) and an altitude of 65 km (40 mi). For context, SpaceX’s most extreme Falcon booster recovery yet saw Falcon Heavy center core B1055 separate at almost twice the speed of B1056, traveling nearly 3 km/s (Mach 8.7) at an altitude of almost 100 km (62 mi).
After such a gentle reentry, the Block 5 booster should be in exceptionally good shape and may require just a few weeks of actual refurbishment before its effectively ready for a second launch. Forced to land aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) after a Crew Dragon explosion littered LZ-1 and 2 with debris critical to the failure investigation, B1056 is now just a few dozen kilometers away from Port Canaveral, 10-20x closer than most drone ship recoveries. Assuming a quick and painless stage safing and securing process, the SpaceX fleet could return the Falcon 9 booster to Port Canaveral just hours from now, minimizing exposure to the marine environment and permitting a uniquely speedy recovery from start to finish.
If B1056 looks to be in good shape, the likeliest candidate for its next launch is Cargo Dragon’s CRS-18 mission, scheduled for no earlier than (NET) mid-July. If events do play out as described, B1056 would become the first flight-proven Block 5 booster to fly a NASA mission, an important step in the process of certifying reused rockets for future NASA launches. Ironically, barring significant delays, the US Air Force will actually beat NASA to the punch to become the first US government entity to fly a payload on a flight-proven Block 5 rocket. NET June 22, the USAF STP-2 mission is scheduled to use not one but both of Falcon Heavy Flight 2’s Block 5 side boosters after their successful April 11th launch debut.
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Author: Eric Ralph