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SpaceX Lands First Mission With A Successful Splash

Despite a few bumpy moments on its first commercial mission to resupply the International Space Station, the SpaceX Dragon is back on Earth to general applause.

The capsule that brought 400 kilograms of food, clothing, spare parts, and equipment, left the ISS the way it arrived — on the end of Canadarm2, which dropped the Dragon capsule back toward destination Earth. (A bit of patriotic pride for Canadians: on departure day, SpaceX’s Twitter page featured an image of Canadarm’s robotic arm outstretched, its logo in clear view.)

The Dragon launched Oct. 7 on the back of a Falcon 9 rocket, with nine Merlin engines. (We’d like to know who comes up with these intriguing names.)

With this mission, SpaceX officially began to fulfill its $1.6 billion contract with NASA to make 12 cargo runs to ISS and back. And with this successful splashdown of the Dragon on Oct. 28 in the Pacific Ocean, just west of Mexico, the first commercial mission was complete.

A Company Of A Different Colour

It’s the “and back” part that makes SpaceX different from other cargo ships from European and Japanese space partners who have been ferrying food and goods to ISS in the void left by last year’s retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle program.

Other cargo ships go up but then can’t come back. They are designed to be loaded with trash and other disposable items that burn up with the spacecraft upon re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere.

Good thing there were nine Merlins, as one reportedly coughed quickly after take off and was shutdown by computers after shedding a few protective panels to relieve pressure. This required a few in-flight adjustments, and the issue led to a bit of a snag with SpaceX’s secondary mission — with Orbcomm — to put a prototype telecommunications satellite into orbit. (Orbcomm is aiming to launch a OG2 satellite system.)

Side Gig

Yes, SpaceX gets to have money-making missions on the side, and this is part of what makes the SpaceX story so compelling. While the Dragon was designed under a NASA program that gives SpaceX $1.6 billion, it remains a commercial venture.

Still, it’s called a secondary mission for a reason: When push came to orbital boost, NASA’s mission won the day. Ultimately, SpaceX was only able to launch Orbcomm’s prototype into an orbit much lower than expected, and couldn’t use engine-boosting resources for fear of jeopardizing the ISS trip.

Orbcomm later reported that while their satellite ultimately fell out of that low orbit, its partners over at Sierra Nevada Corp. were able to receive a good enough data transmission for it to make the OG2 launch plans a go.

Of course, SpaceX had insurance. The company is expected to file a $10 million claim, with the understanding that the mission was a success. That’s enough to get the next round of insurance, which allows them to go forward with the new system.

The Test of Times

SpaceX designed their capsule to be sturdy enough to survive the trip back to Earth in the hopes that it, or something like it, or its design, will one day be used to ferry ISS crew members back and forth. Currently, the only human transportation spacecraft is owned and operated by the Russian Space Agency, at a modest fee of $60 million a seat.

The return of Dragon made many people happy, not least among them researchers with NASA, who have been waiting for more than a year since that last Shuttle trip (for biological samples from astronauts).

Scientists studying the effects of long-term microgravity on humans have for years been studying urine, blood, and the like from crewmembers. Since the shuttles were retired, however, the specimens had to be stored in special freezers until there was room for them to make the return trip back to Earth.

(But we’re sure the freezers are far, far away from the break rooms.)

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com

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