NASA’s 1st Flight Utilizing ‘Used’ SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon Cargo Vessel Blasts Off from Florida Spaceport with Precious Science for Space Station: Gallery

Ken Kremer Space UpClose 16 Dec 2017

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s first flight utilizing both a ‘used’ SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket and a ‘used’ Dragon cargo vessel blasted off successfully Friday morning Dec. 15 under picture perfect skies from Florida’s Spaceport on a resupply mission for NASA packed with packed 2.5 tons of precious science and supplies bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and its six person multinational crew.

A rookie crew of 40 micestronauts were also aboard who will play a key role in research investigations aimed at potentially mitigating osteoporosis and other ailments afflicting millions of people back here on Earth.

NASA research hardware aimed at tracking and measuring the Sun’s energy input to Earth (TSIS-1) and monitoring potentially harmful space debris in the stations orbit (SDS), a new spacesuit and dozens of additional research experiments are also loaded on board Dragon.

The beautiful blastoff of the ‘flight-proven’ SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon CRS-13 commercial cargo freighter took place right on time at 10:36 a.m. EST (1536 GMT), Friday, Dec. 15 from seaside Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It was broadcast live on NASA TV and via a SpaceX webcast.

Falcon’s launch is especially noteworthy because for the first time in the history of SpaceX’s commercial resupply services (CRS) contract for NASA, both the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship are reused vehicles that previously flew on missions tospace and were recovered, refurbished and recycled for Friday’s successful mission.

Furthermore, the Dragon CRS-13 cargo mission is also particularly significant because its serving as the inaugural liftoff from the pad 40 structure which has been almost completely rebuilt and upgraded since a devastating explosion of a rocket on the pad in Sept. 2016 heavily damaged the complex.

“What a spectacular launch. As a matter of fact, a spectacular launch and landing on this great morning here in Florida,” said Ven Fang, NASA JSC Manager, Transportation Integration Office, ISS Program, at the post launch media briefing for reporters held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center press site in Florida.

“I must have had a little sense of Déjà Vu, as we sat here six months ago and watched a launch and landing, very similar, on this very same booster. So it's quite an achievement, it was very nice.”

The Falcon 9 first stage flew earlier this year on the CRS-11 mission on June 3, 2017. The Dragon capsule flew on the CRS-6 mission in April 2015.

Both the Falcon 9 and Dragon space hardware performed flawlessly.

“The performance of both Falcon 9 and Dragon were totally nominal,” Jessica Jensen, SpaceX Director Dragon Mission Management, told Space UpClose at the post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“There's no difference. You literally wouldn't know whether it was a brand new booster and a brand new Dragon versus previously flown. And that's the whole point of it!”

After a normal countdown and fueling operation with liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 propellants the nine Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited to generate a combined 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The two stage 22 story tall Falcon roared off pad 40 under clear blue skies and put on a stunning sky show as it accelerated northeastwards along the US East coast and arced high over the Atlantic Ocean aligning with the stations orbit.

It was easily visible for several minutes to delighted spectators who gathered from across the globe and packed beaches, parks, roadways and more across the Florida Space Coast.

The rockets first and second stages separated 2 minutes and 25 seconds after liftoff. The second stage continued to orbit while the first stage began its controlled descent back to the Cape.

Dragon reached low Earth orbit and unfurled its twin power generating solar panels and opened the guidance and navigation door as planned.

The gumdrop shaped ship separated from the second stage some 10 minutes after the spectacular liftoff.

The now twice ‘flight-proven’ first stage booster successfully landed back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) some eight minutes later accompanied by multiple shockingly loud sonic booms that raced across the space coast region and for many miles as far as Melbourne and beyond, local residents told me.

The 15 story first stage carried out a precision guided controlled descent by reigniting a Merlin 1D engine for a trio of burns – boost back, entry and landing. In the final moments before touchdown the quartet of side mounted landing legs unfurled and locked in place just a few hundred feet above the LZ-1 landing pad as the Merlin enginefired to slow the rapid descent through the speed of sound and complete the dramatic upright and intact soft landing.

It marked the 20th time that a Falcon 9 booster safely soft landed on the ground at Cape Canaveral or on tiny ocean-going platforms prepositioned in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-13 vessel was packed with about 4,800pounds (2205 kg) of science experiments, research gear, crew supplies and hardwarefor delivery to the orbiting outpost.

The launch was postponed from Dec. 12 to resolve contamination issues found with the 2nd stage propulsion system and ground support issues with pad 40 which has been nearly completely rebuilt since the launch pad explosion last year.

I asked Jensen about the contamination issue at the KSC briefing.

“We did find a small amount of particulate in the second stage fuel tank,” Jensen replied.

“We found that out after doing inspections after our static fire testing. The good news is we were able to flush all of that out and verify all of our filters were in place. We checked everything on the ground side as well as checking all the tanks again on Falcon 9.”

“Even though we only saw this in the second stage fuel tank, out of an abundance of caution, we checked the second stage LOX tank as well as the first stage fuel and LOX tanks. And so we did several flushes, we wanted to take a few extra days, just to be safe.”

“We did many extra flushes and insured that basically, our ground systems and our flightsystems were all good for flight.”

Watch these SpaceX launch videos from colleague Jeff Seibert using remote cameras at pad 40:

Video Caption: Launch of the NASA CRS-13 ISS resupply mission on a reused Falcon9 booster with a reused Dragon capsule from newly repaired / refurbished Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Dec 15, 2017. Credit: Jeff Seibert

After a 2 day orbital chase Dragon is scheduled to arrive Sunday morning Dec. 17 at the ISS orbiting about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

It will be grappled with the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm by NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba for installation on the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

Altogether Dragon CRS-13 counts as the fourth SpaceX Dragon liftoff of 2017.

The mission marks the maiden launch from the pad 40 facility since a catastrophic launch pad accident in Sept 2016 resulted in extensive damage and forced a pad shutdown for over a year.

The Dragon CRS-13 cargo mission under contract to NASA was recently announced as the inaugural liftoff from the pad 40 structure which had to be almost completely rebuilt and was upgraded as well to fortify its utility for launches far into the future.

This is Dragons’ 13th cargo mission to the ISS under the Commercial Resupply Services(CRS) contract with NASA out of 20 scheduled under the CRS-1 contract. At least 6 additional cargo missions are scheduled under NASA’s CRS-2 cargo contract award through 2024.

Dragon will stay attached for about 4 weeks before returning to Earth by a parachute assisted splashdown off Baja California in the Pacific Ocean with over 3600 pounds of cargo and loads of science samples in mid-January 2018.

Today’s launch was the 17th for SpaceX this year, marking a record for the company founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s vision is to drastically slash the cost of access to space by recycling the rockets and as much hardware as possible.

It’s been a busy time of comings and goings for the ISS with Soyuz crew and cargo shipdepartures and launches last week and upcoming this week – read our Space UpClose articles.

The science gear on board will support over 300 ongoing research experiments. This includes the ZBLAN investigation demonstrating the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in a microgravity environment.

LaunchPad Medical is conducting a bone adhesive experiment for research involving aninvestigation using synthetic bone material to accelerate bone repair in patients suffering from osteoporesis as well as undergoing dental implants - using a material called tetranite based on calcium phosphate. Astronauts will make injections and sample withdrawals in the gear growing bone cell cultures located in a Destiny module experiment rack in the experiment cosponsored by Boeing.

A pair of NASA experiments are loaded in the unpressurized Dragon truck.

NASA's Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor, or TSIS-1,will measure the Sun's energy input to Earth with 3 times more precision than ever before and continues measurements currently obtained by the SOURCE mission launched in 2003.

The Space Debris Sensor (SDS) experiment will measure orbital debris measuring 1 mm in size and less for a period of at least 2 years and potentially much longer.

Astronauts will pluck both pieces of research hardware from the Dragons unpressurizedtrunk using Canadarm2.

SDS will be positioned on the ESA Columbus module. TSIS-1 will be attached to the ELC-3 structure mounted on the stations backbone truss structure.

Details of the Dragon CRS-13 launch manifest include:
  • Crew Supplies 1080.3 lbs. / 490 kg
  • Science Investigations 1567.5 lbs. / 711 kg
  • Spacewalk Equipment 363.8 lbs. / 165 kg
  • Vehicle Hardware 416.7 lbs. / 189 kg
  • Computer Resources 11 lbs. / 5 kg
  • Total Cargo: 4861.2 lbs. / 2205 kg
  • Total Pressurized Cargo with Packaging: 3439.2 lbs. / 1560 kg
  • Unpressurized Cargo: 1422 lbs. / 645 kgHere’s a NASA description of several of the science experiments science on board.
“Research materials flying inside Dragon's pressurized area include an investigation demonstrating the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in a microgravity environment. Designed by the company Made in Space, and sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the investigation will attempt to pull fiber optic wire from ZBLAN, a heavy metal fluoride glass commonly used to make fiber optic glass. Results from this investigation could lead to the production of higher-quality fiber optic products for use in space and on Earth.”

“NASA's Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor, or TSIS-1, will measure the Sun's energy input to Earth. TSIS-1 measurements will be three times more accurate than previous capabilities, enabling scientists to study the Sun’s natural influence on Earth’s ozone, atmospheric circulation, clouds and ecosystems. These observations are essential for a scientific understanding of the effects of solar variability on the Earth system.”

“The Space Debris Sensor (SDS) will measure the orbital debris environment around the space station for two to three years. Once mounted on the exterior of the station, this one-square-meter sensor will provide near-real-time debris impact detection and recording. Research from this investigation could help lower the risks posed by orbital debris to human life and critical hardware.”

A stash of Christmas presents might also be aboard. But NASA wasn’t exactly saying. So its still very much a surprise!

"I cannot confirm nor deny the presence of Christmas presents," said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s space station program manager, at the prelaunch media briefing.

"There are crew care packages, and as program manager I don't have to go inspect all those. So it wouldn't surprise me, but I can't say for certain."

Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.