SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 launch, with a Dragon orbital module aboard, is the first big step in the next era of the U.S. space business–President Obama’s big plan for commercial rocketry.
SpaceX has just successfully launched its latest Falcon 9 rocket–an important event for the fledgling rocket company all by itself. But this launch is actually far more significant, since the payload was a Dragon capsule. This is SpaceX’s vehicle that will take over some of the duties of the Space Shuttle program when it retires next year, delivering cargo up to the ISS under $1.6 billion worth of commercial contracts from NASA. This is also the first launch, orbit and re-entry of a space capsule that’s been built and operated by a commercial company, rather than a government.
It’s the COTS1 launch–a requirement imposed by NASA to ensure the Dragon vehicle can meet all the operational and safety requirements of a mission to the space station. The requirements for Dragon for this flight are to “launch and separate from Falcon 9, orbit Earth, transmit telemetry, receive commands, demonstrate orbital maneuvering and thermal control, re-enter the atmosphere and recover [the] spacecraft” over the course of about five hours, and around three orbits of Earth. The next mission involves a fly-by of the ISS and more advanced check-outs, but it rests on the success of this first COTS1 flight.
Thus far, all looks good. The launch and ascent into orbit seemed flawless, and both the first and second-stage separations went well, leaving Dragon free to perform its on-orbit checkouts. There appeared to be no uncommanded roll maneuvers, which affected the previous Falcon launch (although without damaging its mission).