SpaceX’s early morning launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying an unmanned Dragon spacecraft, caused a sonic boom to be heard across Central Florida in the wee hours of Monday morning, as the rocket returned safely to land. The sonic boom woke people up, but the launch’s real shock wave is as a vital step forward in America resuming manned spaceflight.
The launch, at 12:45 a.m. Eastern Time at Cape Canaveral, was SpaceX’s ninth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-9), part of a contract that SpaceX has with NASA to fly up to twenty such missions. The Dragon will travel for two days to deliver nearly 5,000 pounds of hardware and experiments bound for the International Space Station (ISS), according to the news release on the NASA website.
Among the equipment on the Dragon is an international docking adapter (IDA), a component that NASA was touting as one that will set up the ISS “for a new era of human spaceflight.”
The hardware is a ring weighing more than 1,000 pounds that will provide a standardized connection point to the station for visiting spacecraft including the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, both now in development in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Engineered to an international docking standard and with numerous sensors and instruments attached, the adapter is designed to work with automated guidance systems on arriving spacecraft so they can safely dock to the station with little, if any, involvement from the crew in the spacecraft. The station’s robotic arm will retrieve the IDA from the unpressurized trunk of the Dragon and spacewalkers will complete the installation of the adapter in August.
This IDA is identical to one that was destroyed when a SpaceX rocket exploded shortly after launch a little more than a year ago, according to the Orlando Sentinel. It’s viewed as an absolutely critical step in resuming manned spaceflight. After the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the U.S. has been dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft to take our astronauts to space.
Boeing senior manager David Clemen told the Sentinel that the IDA was created by collaborating on specifications with space agencies in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia, and called it “a big darn deal” to be getting it in place.
“We don’t like having to depend on someone else to take our astronauts,” added Steve Payne, NASA’s launch integration manager for its manned spaceflight program. “We are fomenting a new industry. Commercial spaceflight is new. Someday, everybody will be able to fly into space and this is the beginning of that industry.”
About eight minutes after the launch, the Falcon rocket safely landed on the Cape Canaveral landing pad that SpaceX leases from the U.S. Air Force. Two hours later, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that after the completion of the post-landing inspections, “all systems look good” and the Falcon was “ready to fly again.”
Dragon on its way to @Space_Station, Falcon on its way home pic.twitter.com/EpfUKBmoWi
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 18, 2016
After the astronauts unload the experiments and equipment from the Dragon and pack it with completed experiments, unneeded equipment, and trash, it will be sent back to Earth. The return trip is scheduled for five weeks from now. The Dragon will detach from the ISS, steer back through Earth’s atmosphere, and fall into the Pacific Ocean assisted by parachute, where it will be recovered by SpaceX.
The launch of a @SpaceX #Falcon9 rocket and @theorlandoeye illuminate the night sky early Monday. #NASASocial @NASA pic.twitter.com/HkZOHKaCuM
— Red Huber (@RedHuber) July 18, 2016
Photo credit: SpaceX public domain image via Flickr.
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