Elon Musk and the SpaceX crew are having an awesome day. During today’s launch of SpaceX’s CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station, the first stage rocket of Falcon 9 stole the show when it landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You just off the coast of Cape Canaveral in Florida — this marks the first time SpaceX successfully landed a rocket on a drone ship.
“My face hurts so much right now, I can’t believe it,” said webcast host and SpaceX engineer Kate Tice.
About 80,000 people tuned in to the SpaceX live stream as Falcon 9 blasted from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 in Florida right on schedule at 4:43 p.m. Eastern. The launch and mission were announced on March 18, marking the first SpaceX mission to the ISS since its failed attempt in June.
The Dragon capsule — which carries about 7,000 pounds of precious supplies and scientific experiments, including an expandable space habitat called BEAM — dispatched from Falcon 9 and now embarks toward the ISS. When it reaches the station approximately two days from now, it will be SpaceX’s seventh successful resupply mission to the ISS. It will also be the first time astronauts on the ISS will interact with a space habitat.
The Dragon is expected to stay on the ISS for just over a month and then return back to Earth sometime in May. If the capsule makes it back successfully, NASA will finally get to process and analyze important blood and urine samples from Scott Kelly’s one-year expedition.
If you didn’t catch the live event, here’s a recap of the best moments from the launch.
The Falcon 9 Successfully Landed on a Drone Ship for the First Time
The entire Falcon 9 rocket is 70 meters tall — a 25-story building headed to space (and then landing on a barge in the ocean). After the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket saw a clean separation from the Dragon capsule, it began its descent about three minutes after launch. The rocket had to negate its high velocity of 4,000 miles per hour in order to guide itself onto the droneship pad. Landing the rocket is a huge step forward in SpaceX’s endeavor to create reusable rockets that can save the company millions in launch costs.
The landing looked almost perfect as Falcon 9 gracefully touched down just off the center of the pad. “This is something that we’ve been trying, we’ve been dreaming of,” says Tice. “Fifth time is a charm. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Of Course I Still Love You Bobbing in the Ocean
Falcon 9 landed on Of Course I Still Love You, the same drone ship that SpaceX has used in previous landing attempts. It bobbed gently in the perfect launch weather just 300 kilometers off the coast of Florida. “Of course it still loves us,” integration and test engineer Brian Mahlstedt said.
Mahlstedt emphasized that no matter what happened in today’s landing — crash or land — that SpaceX would consider it a success. “If we crash on top of the surface of the drone ship or if we lose the first stage in the ocean, as has historically happened, in either case you lose the first stage, but in any one of those cases you gain a wealth of data that is essential as we move forward in trying to land these stages.”
The SpaceX Crew Chants “U.S.A.!”
After Falcon 9 landed, the SpaceX crew acted like they just won the Super Bowl. They cried out in rejoice, proudly starting a “U.S.A!” chant.
“I don’t know if you can hear this, but the crowd is going absolutely nuts right now,” said Tom Praderio, SpaceX firmware engineer. “This is the first time we’ve ever successfully land a first stage on a drone ship.”
The Beautiful Red Glow of the Second Stage of Falcon
While everyone went into party mode after seeing Falcon 9 touch down on the drone ship, the second stage rocket burned a stunning golden orange as it propelled towards the ISS.
“You can even see the coast of Florida just down on the bottom over there right beyond the nozzle,” Praderio says.
The Future Is Bright for SpaceX Launches
The CRS-8 mission is the eighth of up to 20 missions to the ISS that NASA commissioned SpaceX for under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, which has been extended to 2024. A second version of the Dragon, Crew Dragon, is expected to take humans to space sometime in 2017. President of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell announced at the Satellite 2016 conference earlier in March that SpaceX will conduct 16 more launches this year, bringing the total to 18, and up to 30 in 2017.
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