by Chris Tobias
This Friday, April 8, SpaceX will launch an unmanned Dragon spacecraft to low Earth orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket to deliver critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. SpaceX’s eighth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-8), will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The instantaneous launch window opens at 4:43pm EST. (A backup launch window opens at 4:20pm EST on April 9 if necessary.) Dragon will be deployed about 10 minutes after launch, and its flight to the ISS is significant for a number of reasons.
Dragon will be carrying a very important cargo to the ISS on CRS-8. In addition to experiments that will help NASA test the affect of antibodies on muscle wasting in microgravity, provide insight into the interactions of particle flows at the nanoscale level and use protein crystal growth in microgravity to help in the design of new drugs to fight disease, Dragon will also deliver a very special cargo called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). This module is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station.
After installation, the BEAM will be able to expand to roughly 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter, large enough to provide a space where a crew member can enter. Over the next two years, astronauts will enter the module for a few hours at a time a few times a year to retrieve sensor data and conduct assessments of the module’s condition. The BEAM will provide vital information about the thermal, structural, mechanical durability, radiation protection performance, and long-term leak performance of expandable habitats, which are desirable because they can provide a larger working space in orbit while greatly decreasing the amount of transport volume at launch, while still providing the same protection against micro-meteroids that their conventional, metallic counterparts do.
This also represents a huge, momentous event in the history of civilian spaceflight. It’s one thing for NASA to encourage American companies to launch vehicles alongside their own, it’s one thing for said outfits to take on a share of NASA’s work– but it’s another thing entirely for the agency and its international counterparts to welcome an upstart in a $100 billion-dollar space station and entertain the notion that any member(s) of the public might have possibly come up with a better, cheaper way for astronauts (and the rest of us) to live and work in space.
And then, of course, there is the proverbial elephant on the launch pad, which is the fact that this will be Dragon’s first trip out to the black since CRS-7, the only one of SpaceX’s resupply missions to the ISS that ever got “interesting” in the Hoban Washburne sense of the word. CRS-7, which disintegrated a little over two minutes after launch on June 28, 2015, was also carrying an important cargo to the ISS in the form of the first International Docking Adapter (IDA-1), which was designed to facilitate the docking of future manned US transport spacecraft (including the first Crew Dragon, which will hopefully be named Serenity).
Since CRS-7, SpaceX has successfully launched a couple of Falcon 9 rockets to deploy communications satellites, and the first stage of one of those rockets was even recovered by way of a vertical landing at Cape Canaveral last December. This will be Dragon’s first opportunity to get back in the saddle though, and it’s a sure bet that Elon Musk, Gwynne Shotwell and their team of big damn heroes out in Hawthorne, California will feel a whole lot better once a Dragon has made another successful visit to the ISS.
Finally, there’s the unfinished business of landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster on one of SpaceX’s drone-piloted barges in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has attempted the landing of the Falcon at sea several times already, but has yet to succeed despite several near misses. SpaceX has confirmed that they will once again attempt the recovery of the Falcon’s first stage at sea during CRS-8.
With so much at stake during Friday’s launch, there’s little doubt the whole world will be watching online and following the mission’s progress minute by minute on social media. SpaceX’s live streaming of the mission on spacex.com will begin approximately 20-30 minutes before the planned launch at 4:43pm EST. If you’ll be watching along with us, don’t forget to use the hashtag #SpaceXSerenityCrew when posting your comments about the launch on social media.
Godspeed, Dragon, and happy landings, Falcon.
Here’s to a great launch day!
Peace, love and rockets…
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