SpaceX – Dragon launches and Falcon returns

A milestone in human exploration of near-Earth space occurred on with the successful launch on May 30th (US time) of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket taking two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in the first crewed launch from the United States since the end of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

Rocket launching against a cloudy sky
The launch from the historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partnered with SpaceX. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The launch was a technological triumph in many ways. Dragon can be an autonomous vehicle controlled from SpaceX’s Operations Centre in Hawthorne, California. The craft can carry up to seven astronauts in a pressurised capsule with special cargo and is attached to service or trunk module. At end of mission the service section is detached for controlled burn up in re-entry, and the crew capsule (resembling a spacious Apollo Command Module from 50 years ago) returns in a classic splashdown at sea.

Spacecraft against a black background
Dragon Crew Spacecraft about to reach the ISS. Dragon’s docking adaptor is clearly inside the open nose, to the right is the edge of station module, and in the foreground the end a station manipulating arm. Image: EFE/EPA/NASA TV HANDOUT

Reuse, Recyle, Refurbish

A remarkable feature of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket is the controlled return to Earth of its first stage. It performed a flawless vertical touchdown at sea on a drone landing pad. The refurbishment and reuse of first stages will be key to the success of the program as it will significantly reduce launch costs by eliminating wasteful once-only first stages.

A space rocket launching against the night sky. There are smoke and flames coming from the rocket
The first successful Falcon landing - a dramatic night return of a first stage after Flight 20 on 21st December 2015 which delivered Orbcomm satellites into Low Earth orbit. At the base can be clearly seen its four unfolded legs and high up four guidance cameras and sensors aiding the computer controlled descent and landing. Image: SpaceX Orbcomm (Creative Commons)

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The launch

The approach and docking with ISS

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