Tue, Jul 19, 2016 - Page 7 News List

SpaceX launches critical docking port for NASA


SpaceX’s Falcon 9 yesterday launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Photo: AP

SpaceX successfully launched a critical space station docking port for astronauts early yesterday, along with a DNA decoder for high-flying genetic research.

As an extra treat, the company brought its leftover first-stage booster back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a vertical touchdown — only the second such landing for an orbital mission and the ultimate in recycling.

Twin sonic booms rocked the moonlit night, old shuttle-landing-style.

“A really good day,” SpaceX vice president of flight reliability Hans Koenigsmann said.

The cosmic double-header got under way as the uncrewed Falcon rocket streaked upward through the middle-of-the-night darkness, carrying 2,300kg of food, experiments and equipment for the International Space Station. The orbiting outpost was soaring over the North Atlantic at liftoff.

It was SpaceX’s second shot at delivering a new-style docking port for NASA. The last one went up in smoke over the Atlantic Ocean last year, a rocket accident casualty.

NASA needs this new docking setup at the space station before astronauts can fly there in crew capsules set to debut next year. SpaceX is building astronaut-worthy versions of its Dragon cargo ships, while Boeing — which makes the docking ports — is working on a crew capsule called Starliner. The pair would dock to this ring and another due to fly in a year.

The Dragon and its latest shipment are due to reach the station tomorrow.

NASA space station program manager Kirk Shireman expected to be “sweating bullets without a doubt” at liftoff, as always. He said all the cargo is precious, but really wants the docking port “up there safe and sound.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX had its sights not only on orbit, but also on the ground.

SpaceX brought its leftover first-stage booster back just a few kilometers from where it lifted off eight minutes earlier. The company has now pulled off five vertical booster landings since December last year, three on an ocean platform and two on land.

Employees at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, cheered loudly and applauded when the 15-story booster touched down smoothly.

Koenigsmann said the booster looked to be in “excellent shape and probably pretty soon ready to fly again.”

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk wants to refly his rockets to shave launch costs. The boosters are normally ditched at sea. The company hopes to launch its first recovered rocket this fall.

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