National Space Society Applauds Milestone on the Road to Space Settlement: First Precision Return of a Falcon 9 First Stage to an Ocean Platform

The recent launch of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 5 (CRS-5) on January 10th represents a major step towards space settlement, according to the National Space Society (NSS). The Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station (ISS) at 5:54 am EST Monday, January 12th. This is the seventh flight of the Dragon, and the fifth of 12 contracted flights to the ISS by SpaceX.

CRS-5 marked a major step forward for SpaceX’s efforts to develop reusable rocket technology. Such technology is called for in Milestone 2 of the NSS Space Settlement Roadmap, titled “Higher Commercial Launch Rates and Lower Cost to Orbit” based on, among other things, “re-usable vehicles.” For the first time ever, SpaceX attempted to land a returning first stage on an ocean-going platform. The stage impacted the platform “hard” according to Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO. The ocean platform measures 300-ft by 170-ft, and achieving this level of precision on first stage return represents a significant milestone toward a reusable launcher. CRS-5 also utilized for the first time hydraulic grid fins to control the descent. Musk stated that the “grid fins worked extremely well…but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing.” The next Falcon 9 flight will increase the amount of hydraulic fluid by 50%, raising the chance of a successful landing that will lead to ultimate re-use of the first stage and a significant drop in the cost of flying to space.

NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman said: “We congratulate SpaceX on this significant step toward a fully re-usable first stage, and look forward to even greater success as SpaceX continues to test its re-usable vehicle technology during 2015.”

The Dragon cargo includes the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) experiment in the unpressurized Trunk section of the Dragon. CATS, a laser based imaging system, will be connected to the Japanese section of the ISS, Kibo, and will be used to study atmospheric particulates. The ability of the Dragon (and the Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, once it returns to flight) to routinely take new experiments to the ISS, and for the Dragon to return experimental results, is critical to enabling the ISS to be used for scientific and commercial research. Over 1,662 kg (3,664 lb) of cargo is targeted for return to Earth via this Dragon capsule.

New scientific breakthroughs often result when science is done in unexplored extreme environments such as the microgravity found in space. Among the scientific experiments on CRS-5 are a study of cell regeneration in flatworms in microgravity and a study of fruit fly immune systems in space. Other CRS-5 payloads include a pair of Planet Labs commercial Earth imaging Flock -1d’ satellites that will replace some of the satellites lost when the Orbital Sciences Antares failed in October 2014.

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