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Mar 1, 2013 - 10:52:59 AM

SpaceX Launches Dragon To Space Station, But Problem Reported In Orbit

By NBC News
Mar 1, 2013 - 10:45:26 AM


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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Friday to send an unmanned Dragon cargo capsule on its quickest trip yet to the International Space Station, but the company reported a problem with the Dragon in orbit.

The Falcon 9 made a problem-free ascent from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:10 a.m. ET. A half-hour after launch, SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a Twitter update that controllers were looking into a technical issue involving the capsule's thrusters.

"Issue with Dragon thruster pods," Musk wrote. "System inhibiting three of four [pods] from initializing. About to command inhibit override."

The thruster snag forced a delay in deploying the Dragon's power-generating solar arrays. "Holding on solar array deployment until at least two thruster pods are active," Musk said in a follow-up tweet. The Dragon can remain on battery power for 18 hours after launch.

Musk said the command to override the Dragon's onboard system and initialize the thruster pods was being issued during the capsule's pass over a ground station in Australia. A news briefing is planned for later Friday to discuss the status of what's expected to be a three-week resupply mission.

This is the third Dragon flight to the station: The first one, which took place last May, was a demonstration flight aimed at proving that California-based SpaceX could safely reach the space station, get hooked up, and then descend again to a splashdown. Last October's second flight marked the first of what's expected to be 12 resupply missions to the station, under the terms of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. At that rate, each Dragon mission costs NASA about $133 million.

The Dragon's earlier flights required a couple of days for the approach to the space station. Due to favorable orbital geometry, this spacecraft could reach the station as early as 6:30 a.m. Saturday. However, NASA and SpaceX said the sequence of engine burns required to get to the station might have to be modified due to the pod-initialization problem — and that could affect the schedule.

When the Dragon comes within 10 meters (33 feet) of the space station, the astronauts will use the station's robotic arm to grab the capsule and pull it in to a port on the orbital outpost's Harmony module.

This Dragon holds more than 2,300 pounds (1,050 kilograms) of cargo, including experiments to study the growth of plants and mouse stem cells in zero-G. There are also spare parts for the station's air-recycling system, and a research freezer for preserving biological samples.

A similar freezer was loaded up with ice cream treats for the crew for last October's resupply mission, but this time, the goodies packed on the Dragon will be "a little bit healthier," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said. Although she wasn't specific about what the space station's six residents would be getting, she said the treats were coming fresh from an orchard owned by the father of one of SpaceX's employees.

The astronauts are due to open up the Dragon on Sunday. It will take about three weeks to unload the craft, then load it up with more than 3,000 punds (1,370 kilograms) of cargo for return to Earth. The Dragon is due to be unberthed on March 25, and will head down to a Pacific splashdown and recovery.

SpaceX's cargo flights are meant to fill the gap left by the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011. Another company, Orbital Science Corp., has a separate NASA contract to begin deliveries to the space station later this year. Cargo can also be delivered to the space station on Russian, Japanese and European transports, but only SpaceX currently has the capability to bring cargo back down.

SpaceX and two other companies, Sierra Nevada Corp. and the Boeing Co., are developing crew-capable spacecraft under a separate NASA program. Those spaceships could be ready for NASA's use as early as 2017. In the meantime, U.S. astronauts have to ride on Russian Soyuz capsules at a cost of about $60 million per seat.

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