Monday, July 19, 2010

SpaceX plans demonstration flight

The first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket expected to fly the first in a series of NASA demonstration missions in September is resting in its Launch Complex 40 hangar.

The roughly 100-foot long, 12-foot wide booster and its nine Merlin engines arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base from Texas late last week on an oversized flatbed truck, wrapped in protective tarps.

"We're glad to see their first stage arrive here," said George Diller, a NASA spokesman at Kennedy Space Center. "This is the first NASA-sponsored test flight, so it's a significant first step toward having a commercial payload service to the space station."

Delivery of the liquid-fueled rocket stage came six weeks after Falcon 9's successful maiden voyage on June 4.

The flight delivered the rocket's upper stage and a simulated Dragon spacecraft to their intended orbit -- a "bull's-eye," according to SpaceX.

That rocket's first stage broke up when it hit the ocean, but it's recovery was not a mission objective. Engineers have been working to correct some unexpected roll that occurred during liftoff and second-stage engine firing.

The second Falcon 9 flight, now targeted for the second week of September, is the first under a NASA program intended to prove that Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is ready to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 missions to the space station through 2016. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., has another contract.

The supplies will be crucial to the station's long-term operations after the shuttle program retires next year.

The first demonstration flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program will fly a real Dragon spacecraft for the first time.

The capsule is supposed to separate from the upper stage and orbit the planet up to three times before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean and being recovered.

At least one, possibly two, additional demonstration flights are planned before a first station supply run next year, if all the tests go well.

SpaceX plans to deliver the rocket's second stage and the Dragon next month.


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