Nearly a year since the failure of its Dragon spacecraft launch, SpaceX will attempt its first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station Friday. Since June, the commercial spaceflight company has seen success with three completed missions and the ground-based landing of the Falcon 9 rocket. With a recently announced contract extension by NASA, there’s a lot more riding on a successful launch than another attempt to land a rocket on an ocean barge.
NASA has entrusted SpaceX to deliver cargo and, in the near future, humans to the space station, but commercial spaceflight is a burgeoning industry measured by successful launches. In the current commercial resupply mission contract, SpaceX is joined by Orbital ATK as the only certified companies capable of delivering cargo and science investigations for NASA through 2018. From 2019 to 2024, Sierra Nevada Corp. is to join the duo in delivery missions to the space station.
An investigation revealed a faulty strut caused an overpressure event, leading to the explosion of the Dragon spacecraft just 2 minutes and 19 seconds after launch June 28. The Dragon was sidelined until SpaceX returned to space Dec. 21 with the successful launch of 11 communications satellites for Orbcom. It was the best result possible for SpaceX as it saw not only a completed mission, but also the ground-based return of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ commercial spaceflight company, on Nov. 24 was the first company to accomplish such a feat as part of a test flight.
SpaceX followed up December’s launch by sending up NASA’s Jason-3 satellite in January followed by a launch for SES communications satellite in March. The two launches in 2016 included attempts to return the Falcon 9 on an ocean barge. Based on the smaller size of the platform, a successful landing is much more difficult than a ground-based landing. So far, an ocean landing has been out of reach for SpaceX, but Friday offers another opportunity to complete the task.
There are two notable occupants of the Dragon spacecraft flying to the space station. The first is an inflatable habitat from Bigelow Aerospace. These expandable rooms could be used in future missions where easily assembled structures are necessary. A group of mice will also be on board in the trip to the space station.