Super Sunday for Commercial Spaceflight

While government spaceflight remains a hot mess, this past weekend was an exciting one for the real future of space — commercial spaceflight. Sunday saw a trifecta of breakthrough private activities.

First, at 08:45 Eastern Daylight Time, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus capsule successfully rendezvoused with the International Space Station, where the crew grabbed it with the robotic arm and berthed and mated it to the facility, with about thirteen-hundred pounds of supplies for them, including chocolate. Unlike the SpaceX Dragon, which has had three successful flights to the station, Cygnus isn’t capable of returning payload. But the successful flight means that NASA now has two separate means of getting cargo to the ISS from American companies, independently of the Russians. The vehicle will remain mated for a month or so, and then be detached and deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere, with some of the trash from the station.

In the late afternoon, another commercial milestone was reached when the International Launch Services' Proton flew again, after a hiatus from a launch failure in July, delivering a European communications satellite to orbit.

But the most exciting event was in the morning on the West Coast. It was one that many had been anticipating with excitement for many months. Just as the window opened, seemingly without a hitch, SpaceX launched their upgraded rocket, the Falcon-9 version 1.1 (designated Falcon-9R), from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast north of Santa Barbara.

It represented several firsts for the company.

It was the first flight of any SpaceX vehicle from California, even though the company is based there and the rockets are manufactured in Hawthorne, about a hundred fifty miles down the coast, near Los Angeles. All previous Falcon 9 flights had been from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It was also the first commercial satellite delivery mission for the Falcon 9 series. All previous flights had been either test flights for the Falcon 9 itself or the Dragon capsule, or NASA flights to deliver cargo to and from the ISS. The rocket delivered a Canadian satellite, called CASSIOPE, which will observe space weather, and interactions of solar activity with the upper atmosphere. It also delivered some very small satellites. All got a discount price for the launch, because it was actually an initial test flight of an essentially new vehicle.

The rocket was a significant design modification from the Falcon 9 version 1.0 that has been delivering Dragon to the ISS over the past year or so. It has an upgraded engine (going from a Merlin 1C to a Merlin 1D), with fewer parts for reliability and ease of manufacturing, and about fifty percent more thrust. The nine-engine configuration on the first stage was changed as well, from a square pattern of three by three to a circular one with an outer ring of eight and a center engine. The vehicle was stretched significantly, with much more capacity in its propellant tanks to allow more payload. The new configuration has a much higher aspect ratio, almost pencil like, compared to the old one, but it seemed to fly just fine.