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Falcon 9 Flight 2: The Dragon awakes

We are in to the last half hour of the countdown for flight two. This time there is a real Dragon capsule, a vehicle which will be tested in orbit and then put through a re-entry, the first to be done by a private venture. This is a difficult sequence and even partial success is a major step forward. It is the second flight of a designed from the ground up launch vehicle; the first flight of a pressurized capsule that will someday be manned; and the first re-entry and recovery for the capsule.

It is a lot to accomplish and I will be reporting on what I see.

0854: The are proceeding to terminal count with no holds. Terminal count is when all of the interesting things happen. Preumably they have polled all of the key people for launch go. Terminal count will start in 1 minutes at t-10 min.

0856. Terminal automatic sequence is running…

0859. T-7. Chill down progressing. All going well.

0900. Chill down complete.

0903. The rocket is in terminal account. They have gone to a terminal count abort. They are safing it now.

0904. This is not unusual. The engineers will check out the reason for the abort and possibly correct it within this launch window or delay until later today. They have several possible windows today. They will probably recycle to at least t -10 if things can be cleared. Second launch window will be the next option.

0915. The time has recycled to t-13. No word yet as to the reason for the abort. Could be just a minor item that is out of bounds or a too tight constraint. This happens nearly every time. They detect things on their rocket that I doubt anyone else does and have an automation level that is far beyond the competition.

0920. The next open slot is 10:36 to 10:45 Eastern time. That is 15:36 to 15:45 UTC (GMT). No word from the engineers yet.

0934. Back channel info is that it was a problem with the range telemetry and they are fairly sure they know the source of the problem. They had a similar issue on Flight 1, although I do not have enough information to say whether it is exactly the same issue or not. Everyone is currently showing a retry in the next slot, although nothing official has come out yet.

0936: It is official. Retry in about an hour. Sounds like it was a problem in the link to the ordinance on board. Whether that was destruct or other is not clear to me yet.

0948. Okay, they’ve given detail publicly now. It was a false abort on the telemetry monitoring the self destruct explosives. A correction has been made to their database and they will proceed with the countdown at the next TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System) window in a bit under one hour.

1022. They are polling the net prior to restarting the count. at t-13.

1033. Polling for restart of terminal count… everything looking good so far. Prechill in progress.

1038, Chill down complete, Now they go to internal power in preparation for lowering the umbilical tower…

1052. Dragon is in orbit!

1054. My post mortem. The launch was nearly flawless. They have definitely got their control equations down pat this time as the roll attitude was rock steady from lift off through orbital insertion. Staging was perfect. No sign of any impingement of the separating 1st stage with the 2nd stage engine. The have again demonstrated capabilities that I do not believe anyone else has, with their automated sequencing, their ability to detect and abort on problems and then to analyze and retry without weeping and wailing and burning of midnight oil. The one day delay from Tuesday to today was due to a factor that would have scrubbed other vehicles for days if not longer. That delay was due to cracks in the expander extension. They simply removed it for this flight. When a rocket goes upwards the external pressure falls to zero and changes the way the jet expands. For vacuum operations you need a longer expansion nozzle to extract the most energy out of the hot gases. For this flight they did not need that wee bit extra so they did without it.

The Dragon capsule is now due to orbit the Earth 2-3 times before they do the re-entry. I will keep my ears open for the results. I am also going to be listening to find out of the first stage comes down in a recoverable condition this time. It is Elon’s long term goal to be able to recycle stages to bring costs down even further but so far there has been little success there. They will get to it… it is far less important than the goals they have reached.

All in all, this has been a very good day for commercial space.

1216. A little bit more post mortem. One glitch that has been noted, not a particularly big one and one that happens on other rockets as well, was a bit of a fireball from the umbilical during liftoff. This was caused by drainage of fuel left in the hoses. Some thought it was a pretty good size fireball. It would not be notable except that this is only the second flight so everyone was a bit nervous about anomalies. The Dragon capsule is in orbit and is exercising its Draco thrusters and being put through its paces. Re-entry will be in 2-3 hours, somewhere off the coast of Mexico I believe. There have been no reports yet on the splash down of the first stage. Telemetry on it lasted fairly long this time so it may have remained intact through its re-entry this time. I’ll pass on anything else I pick up over the next few hours. Personally, I think I’m going to go out and celebrate with a large coffee.

1402. I’m just back from a coffee and doing a bit of obligatory work… while I was away the capsule re-entered and parachuted into the Pacific. All flight parameters were nominal for human space flight. The only item still to be ticked off is the recovery of the first stage from the Atlantic. I have seen nothing yet as to whether it survived its return. I will let you know when I find out. The new age has dawned. Private manned orbital activity is now possible although a couple years away. SpaceX is running an aggressive but prudent test program and will not fly people until the F9 is a few more flights up the learning curve. They may also (for NASA use) be required to use an rocket escape tower on the capsule.

1443. What with all the excitement due to the main event, I completely forgot to mention that they *also* released several small payloads, ‘CubeSats’ for paying customers. So this was not only an Engineering test, it was also a commercial (although high risk) flight.

1507. I am still catching up with things. Just to let you know: the capsule was on floats within 35 minutes of the drogue chute deployment. That tells you the re-entry was right on target. Great work SpaceX!

Dragon Capsule floating in Pacific
Dragon Capsule after splashdown in the Pacific.
Photo: rcvd by Gwyne Shotwell’s mobile phone from the Pacific, with thanks to SpaceX

1545. Elon Musk just announced another surprise. After separation from the capsule, they relit the 2nd stage engine and sent it into an orbit with an 11,000 km apogee. Now is that cool or what?!! Elon has also said that in the future the Dragon capsule will land propulsively and be ready for turn around and re-use. The heat shield was barely touched… it was designed to handle lunar and martian return re-entries. They have confirmed that it would take the worst case… as an alternative to the Orion. Unconfirmed: Gwynne Shotwell says the landing was within 800m of the target point.

1600. Elon has said that NASA said if all went well, the next flight might be allowed to do prox-ops at the space station. Everything went smashingly on this flight, so there is a high probability the next Dragon will go to ISS. First stage re-entry gave them a lot of data, but was not successful. Elons says it will come eventually… this is a long term goal that they are approaching incrementally. No one has ever done it before with a liquid first stage. It might take 2-3 years to beat this one down.

1608. If you are on line right now, you can watch the press conference here

1658. The Press conference is over and I am about to call it a day on this live blog and attempt to do some work. There is one other item that Elon stated which has to be repeated. The Dragon capsule has nearly the same volume as the Orion capsule. Dragon has a heat shield which can survive a Mars return re-entry, which Orion cannot. It is probably a more capable spacecraft than Orion. It costs far less and has sucked up a fraction of the cost of the Orion thus far. And now, to top it off, Dragon has flown and landed. Orion is still on the ground. Enough said?
Viva la capitalism!

With that, I bid you all a good night… and that’s the way it was… Wednesday the Eighth of December, two thousand and ten.

15 comments to Falcon 9 Flight 2: The Dragon awakes

  • I hope they’ve checked their software more thoroughly than Dale checked this posting ;)

  • Dale Amon

    Try doing a liveblog on a time frame of minutes using an underpowered laptop and flipping back and forth between windows while concentrating on technical jargon and typing html…

  • Dave Walker

    Orbital insertion on the very first try? *WOW*, I’m impressed!

    Next step, of course, is to repeat it :-).

    Good liveblog posting, too – thanks a bunch, Mr A. Not sure I’d refer to the aftermath of a successful launch a “post mortem”, though!

  • Dave Walker

    So, successful splashdown too – the cake not only has icing on it, but cherries and other toppings, too :-).

    Having mis-spent my youth doing more Physics than was strictly good for me (especially materials, or “condensed matter” as they call it, these days) – I do wonder about the concept of re-using liquid-fuelled first stages, though – given the extreme conditions of temperature and stress such items go through, I wonder how the costs of testing a recovered stage match up to the costs of building a fresh one…

  • Dale Amon

    Just to make sure everyone is clear: this was the SECOND flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and the FIRST flight of the Dragon capsule. This is a full up capsule but does not yet have life support systems in it. That is estimated to be another $100M and a couple years away. But putting a man-able can in orbit and bringing it back down is definitely the *hard* part. The rest is just spam-can filler by comparison.

    As to the re-use of liquid engines. This is not a problem. Even the bleeding edge ISP-Ubber-Alles SSME’s on the shuttle were usable on many flights. The Merlin’s are built to be rugged and use LOX-RP, a much easier environment to deal with than LOX-LH. If you are worried about re-use of rocket engines… well, some of our readers happen to build engines that restart first time every time. XCOR builds the Ronson Cigarette Lighter of rocket engines. The guys at SpaceX aren’t doing too shabby a job either ;-)

    Governments research projects push the outer edge ‘because they can afford it’. Commercial entities look for the economic sweet spot instead. Wider margins means more trouble free operational hours.

  • Laird

    Exciting times for commercial spaceflight. This is truly good news. Congratulations to SpaceX!!

    And thanks for the play-by-play, Dale. Much appreciated.

  • Dave Walker

    Sorry if I’ve made anything unclear, by my comments; when it comes to rocketry, you’re the source of definitive info around here, Mr A.

    I’m pleasantly surprised that the Falcon Stage 1 *isn’t* LOX-LH; I agree, that makes its like a bit more staightforward, but there’s still the matter of checking for Frank-Reed loops on recovered Stage 1s, which could lead to fractures on subsequent launches.

    Lest we forget, Morton Thiokol is a private company.

    If the excellent folk at SpaceX have a handle on materials (or materials testing) which alleviates this risk, then I’m happy.

  • Robert

    Awesome! Congratulations to all involved.

  • Dale Amon

    Dave, I am not sure why crack formation and propagation would be a particular issue here. I don’t think the engines are getting thermal shocks as they have a reasonable time to cool down radiatively before they come down; there will of course be some physical shocks at the water impact but with proper orientation and chutes that should not be excessive. So I’m curious why you thing the loops would be of great import.

    The biggest problem is getting them to re-enter, which is an issue of having ‘just enough’ shielding in just the right places. Elon thinks it could take 2-3 years to get to where this can be done, and admits it is very hard: no one has ever attempted this with a liquid fueled stage before.

    Now, as to Morton Thiokol… yes they are a private company, but they are getting their sales through forcing their product on us rather than on its merits. If some private operator wants to buy their product and take an ISS delivery contract, then fine. But that is not even close to what is going on here.

    To put the debate going on between the free market space types and the socialist space types in perspective, the Orion capsule has cost $4.5B tax payer dollars already and is not ready to fly. It is a less capable space craft than Dragon. It is not capable of a re-entry on a Mars free return trajectory. I believe this is about an order of magnitude more than the entire SpaceX program to date.

    I would also point out that there is no serious player in the commercial space market considering solid engines. The hybrid engines on SpaceShipTwo are not solids; they use a liquid oxidizer and may bet throttled and shut down. Once you light an ATK SRB, you are going where it is going unless you blow the end caps with the “thrust termination system’ or fire an escape tower to pull you away from it. That’s just not acceptable in the commercial world.

  • Fly!

    Just fly!

    I’m bored here.

  • John W

    This is a far more significant event than a bunch of dopey students protesting about student tuition fees – especially since their education fees are only a tiny fraction of the “welfare” liabilities they face.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    This is very encouraging, thanks for the commentary, Dale.

    John W hit the nail on the head. I wonder how many of today’s student protesters have a clue as to what “escape velocity” is.

  • RW

    As Elon Musk put it, mindblowingly awesome! Quite right.

    JP: in a different context, a nice line from the latest Ian M Banks novel “I can’t wait for this to achieve escape velocity from the mundanity well”.

  • Paul Marks

    Good news Dale.

    Good luck to all those involved in the industry!

    Although I wish the general economic situation (at present – and even more in the future, which will be worse) was better for them.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    And is it true that some cheese was on the flight? If so, who gets to try it? Is this for when you send mice up?