SpaceX will be launching its Falcon 9 rocket with the robotic Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), scheduled for 4:43pm EDT on April 8, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX will again try to land the Falcon 9 rocket on a robotic ship in the Atlantic ocean.
So far, the company has tried four such “drone ship” landings – in January and April 2015 and January and March 2016. Each of these attempts came close to being successful – the first stage of the two-stage Falcon 9 succeeded in hitting its target but toppled over the ship's deck. Today, SpaceX representatives are confident that the landing will finally be a success.
"I certainly hope we're going to nail the landing this time," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance at SpaceX, said during a prelaunch briefing on April 7.
This will be SpaceX's eighth robotic resupply flight to the ISS, but first in almost a year. The previous similar mission ended in june 2015 right after liftoff, as Falcon 9 broke apart in the sky.
The accident has been traced to a faulty steel strut in the rocket's upper stage. According to Koenigsmann, the problem has been addressed, and the Falcon 9 rocket has been upgraded.
The Dragon cargo capsule includes 3175 kilograms of supplies and scientific hardware for the ISS, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM will be attached to the ISS to test out the on-orbit performance of inflatable habitat modules, which offer much more usable volume per unit mass than traditional rigid, metallic structures, advocates say.
"It is the future," said Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston in the briefing. "Humans will be using these kinds of modules as we move further and further off the planet and, actually, as we inhabit low Earth orbit."
If all goes well, the Falcon 9's first stage will separate shortly after liftoff, and then perform a series of engine burns to head back to the drone ship, which is called "Of Course I Still Love You" and will be stationed off the Florida coast.
Dragon will continue on its journey toward the ISS and is scheduled to arrive there the morning of April 10.
The landing attempt is part of SpaceX's effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, technology that the company views as critical to opening up the space frontier. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that reusable boosters could cut the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100, perhaps making Mars colonies economically feasible.
While SpaceX has not yet pulled off a drone-ship landing, the company has brought one of its rockets softly back to Earth. In December 2015, a Falcon 9 first stage touched down on terra firma at Cape Canaveral — the first time this had ever been done during an orbital launch.