SpaceX launched a cargo-laden rocket in the company’s first International Space Station mission since the explosion of another unmanned cargo craft last summer.
The Falcon 9 lifted off at 4:43 p.m. EDT April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its Dragon spacecraft reached orbit about 10 minutes later and is expected to reach the ISS on Sunday, April 10.
“Dragon is on its way to the International Space Station,” SpaceX quickly confirmed on its Twitter feed.
An attempt to land the rocket’s first stage on a barge floating just off the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean appeared equally successful. SpaceX aims to make its rockets reusable by returning them to land or sea-based landing sites, and this represents the first successful barge landing. A land-based rocket landing attempt also succeeded in a previous SpaceX mission.
The Dragon is loaded with almost 7,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and items needed for science experiments by the six-person crew of the orbiting space lab, including some live mice enlisted for the ISS mission. But the most notable entry on the flight manifest is an inflatable module — set to be tested at the space station — that’s intended for use as habitat by future colonies on the moon and Mars.
Bigelow Aerospace’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is loaded in a tightly packed configuration. It will be expanded to 13 by 10.5 feet once attached to the space station, and is designed to protect against space radiation and space debris.
BEAM would replace conventional metal modules, which are heavier to transport yet no sturdier to use.
Bigelow Aerospace was founded in 1999 by hotel developer Robert Bigelow. The Las Vegas-based company bought the rights to some previous inflatable-habitat technology from NASA and worked to turn it into the much-improved BEAM system.
Bigelow first space-tested a BEAM prototype in 2006, and NASA subsequently awarded the company a $17.8 million contract to install BEAM on the ISS. The module will remain attached to the space station for at least two years.
As for SpaceX, the successful return to ISS cargo shuttling gets the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company back on track for taking on astronaut-shuttling missions, along with Boeing, starting in 2017. That will end a U.S. reliance on Russia for such missions in recent years.
SpaceX had been in mission hiatus following the June 28 explosion of an ISS cargo craft, until returning to flight on Dec. 21 with a satellite launch for Orbcomm. The latest cargo mission is the company’s eighth under its NASA contract for the Commercial Resupply Services program.