SpaceX Slated for First Space Station Flight Since June Rocket Failure

March 18, 2016, 5:08 PM UTC
Courtesy of SpaceX

SpaceX will resume resupply runs to the International Space Station in early April, ending a nine month hiatus that followed a June 2015 launch failure in which an ISS-bound Falcon 9 rocket exploded mid-flight. Today NASA confirmed an April 8 target launch date for SpaceX’s eighth ISS resupply run—a run which will also culminate in yet another attempted landing of SpaceX’s first stage rocket booster.

The company’s last attempt at resupplying the ISS ended just two minutes after liftoff, when the Falcon 9 ferrying one of SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsules and a whole lot of cargo disintegrated in flight. The mishap—SpaceX’s first total failure since it began flying missions for NASA—grounded SpaceX for several months, though it has flown three successful missions since.

One of those missions culminated in the successful landing and recovery of the rocket’s first stage booster, which guided itself back to a controlled touchdown at Cape Canaveral, Fla., just a few miles from where the rocket had lifted off. SpaceX has also attempted several booster stage landings on a robotic drone ship out at sea, the most recent just earlier this month.

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That attempt, like several others before it, proved unsuccessful when the rocket made a hard landing on the drone ship. Due to the particular nature of that mission, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had previously tempered expectations, saying that the landing attempt had a low chance of success. But following that hard landing Musk expressed optimism that the “next flight has a good chance.”

Right now it’s unclear if that landing attempt would be on dry land or at sea. Because the mission will launch from Cape Canaveral (rather than SpaceX’s West Coast launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force base), SpaceX can choose either option, as Cape Canaveral is equipped with the proper facilities for a terrestrial landing.

What is certain about the mission is that it will be carrying some interesting cargo. Aside from supplies to sustain both the crew and its various scientific pursuits, the Dragon capsule will ferry an inflatable space habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace that will be attached to the space station and expanded for testing. Once inflated, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module—or BEAM—will provide more than 550 cubic feet of living space to astronauts and serve as a test bed for future inflatable space habitat technologies.

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When it decouples from the ISS and returns to Earth, the Dragon capsule will also be carrying some important cargo on the way back down. The biological samples collected by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly—who just returned to Earth after nearly a year aboard the ISS—will be packed into the capsule and sent back down with it, allowing scientists to examine Kelly’s blood, urine, saliva, and other bodily expendables for clues about the effects of long-term space habitation on the human body.

As such, the launch is a big deal for both NASA and SpaceX. But an even more important mission is headed skyward as soon as 5:26 p.m. ET today. If all goes as planned, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka are slated to launch toward the space station from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. They are scheduled to arrive at the ISS just after 11:00 p.m., from where they’ll undoubtedly be watching SpaceX’s upcoming resupply run with great personal interest.

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