Wednesday, May 23, 2012

SpaceX Launches Dragon Capsule

After a two day delay due to an anomaly in one of the rocket engines, SpaceX's falcon 9 rocket blasted off early this morning, launching a Dragon capsule filled with cargo for the ISS.
There was plenty of news coverage of the event, but there were three little tidbits that I especially enjoyed.
  1. The description of the humorous juxtaposition of the young, casual, SpaceX mission controllers with the suited NASA old guard in the control room: "Many of the SpaceX controllers wore untucked T-shirts and jeans or even shorts, a stark contrast to NASA’s old suit-and-tie shuttle team."
  2. View from Spacex's Dragon spacecraft looking outward
    at one of two solar array panels in the process of deploying.
    Source: SpaceX
  3. The picture that @SpaceX tweeted of the Dragon capsule solar arrays after they deployed. News reports say the cheering in the control room after the successful deployment of the solar arrays was almost louder than the cheering following the successful launch. In many ways, deploying the solar arrays is the most stressful, high stakes activity of commissioning. It takes less force, and different mechanics, to deploy arrays in a zero G environment than it does on Earth. In fact, many spacecraft (like the James Webb Telescope) are never able to fully test solar array deployment on Earth; gravity makes the solar arrays too heavy to operate with the motors that will be used in space. Operators must trust in the capability of the mechanical engineers and software simulations without ever testing the full deployment procedure. I have a friend who was working on a satellite at Space Systems Loral when one of the solar arrays failed to deploy during commissioning. In a last ditch effort to save the spacecraft they fired a spacecraft thruster at the array to try to push it out, and ended up losing whatever capability they had from the partially deployed array by blowing a hole through it. The satellite is now a very expensive piece of space junk, floating around in GEO with 100 million dollars worth of expensive, cutting edge technology and equipment, and no power. 
  4. The smaller, public interest news articles about Celestis, the for-profit company that sent the ashes of 300 people to orbit aboard the Falcon 9. The "special payload" included the remains of James Doohan (Scotty, from Star Trek) and Gordon Cooper (one of the famous Mercury 7 astronauts). The ashes were in the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which was jettisoned about 10 minutes after launch and will remain in orbit for about a year before its orbit decays and it burns up in Earth's atmosphere. This was actually the backup flight for Celestis - the first round of ashes failed to make it to orbit on the botched 2008 SpaceX launch that crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Congrats to SpaceX! I am excited to follow the mission over the next two weeks as the Dragon performs several maneuvers and is eventually grabbed by ISS astronauts using the station's robotic arm. The SpaceX Ops team has a lot on their plate - It must be an incredibly exciting experience, but I don't envy the pressure on them or their likely sleep schedule for the next two weeks!

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