CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX launched its sixth Falcon 9 of 2018, this time to send the unpiloted CRS-14 Dragon cargo ship on its way toward the International Space Station with several thousand pounds of food, experiments and hardware for the six-person Expedition 55 crew.
Liftoff took place at 4:30 p.m. EDT (20:30 GMT) April 2, 2018, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40). The 45th Space Wing, which controls the Eastern Range in Florida, predicted an 80 percent chance of favorable weather conditions during the instantaneous launch window with the only concern being flight through precipitation and cumulus clouds. While there was an anvil cloud with potential lightning heading for the launch area about 15 minutes before the planned flight, it stayed far enough away to not pose any threat to the countdown.
This was the second time in history that a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage flew into space along with a flight-proven Dragon capsule. The former first took flight during the CRS-12 mission in August 2017, while the former flew to the ISS as part of the CRS-8 mission in April 2016. The previous flight to do this was CRS-13in December 2017.
“Supporting NASA and the International Space Station, by providing CRS-14 assured access to space, is a team effort here on the Eastern Range,” the 45th Space Wing said in a statement on its Facebook page. “Today our integrated mission partners, SpaceX and NASA, showed the power of innovation and hard work as we successfully launched a flight proven spacecraft and booster for the second time!”
For CRS-14, the Dragon capsule is loaded with 5,836 pounds (2,647 kilograms) of food, experiments and hardware. This includes several items in the spacecraft’s unpressurized trunk such as the Atmosphere-Space Interaction Monitor (ASIM) and the Materials ISS Experiment Flight Facility (MISSE-FF).
“Another Dragon in orbit puts a smile on our face,” said Joel Montalbano, the deputy manager for the International Space Station program, during a post-launch press briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. “Any time you have a mission going to the International Space Station, whether its bringing cargo or crew, it’s something that we look forward to. We do a lot of planning for it and it’s just a great day.”
The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule on top stands 213 feet (65 meters) tall and is 12 feet (3.7 meters) wide. The first stage has nine Merlin 1D engines that produce 1.7 million pounds (7,600 kilonewtons) of sea-level thrust. On top of the first stage is the second stage with a single Merlin 1D Vacuum engine that produces 210,000 pounds (934 kilonewtons) of thrust.
Both stages are fueled by rocket grade kerosene known as RP-1, and super-chilled liquid oxygen.
The countdown for the April 2 launch proceeded smoothly and quietly. SpaceX began fueling the rocket with RP-1 beginning around 70 minutes before the planned liftoff. That was followed by liquid oxygen loading about 35 minutes later.
At about seven minutes before launch, the nine Merlin 1D engines at the base of the first stage began chilling before the ignition process started.
About 57 seconds before engine ignition, the Falcon 9’s flight computer was commanded to begin final pre-launch checks and the vehicles tanks began to pressurize. Fifteen seconds later, the SpaceX launch director verified all was go for launch.
Three seconds before liftoff, the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines ignited and began to throttle up to full power. In the meantime, the Falcon 9’s onboard computer verified the engines were working properly.
Once the countdown reach zero, the rocket’s launch mounts released the vehicle and it began rising toward the sky.
Several seconds later, the Falcon 9 with its Dragon payload began pitching over toward its designated 51.6 degree-inclined orbit.
One minute, eight seconds after liftoff, the vehicle experienced the maximum aerodynamic pressure exerted on it by Earth’s atmosphere—Max-Q.
Continuing to fly spaceward, at two minutes, 41 seconds, the nine first stage engines cut off as planned. Four seconds later, the first and second stages separated. Seven seconds after that, the second station’s lone Merlin 1D Vacuum engine ignited to continue propelling the Dragon spacecraft into orbit.
Meanwhile, the first stage, while not officially being recovered, continued on a trajectory as if it were to be recovered in order to gain more data—just with no drone ship to meet it. Jessica Jensen, the director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said the company was primary looking at booster reentry data, and not so much on the landing. She said the booster had “a landed hard in the ocean.”
About nine minutes, 11 seconds after leaving Florida, the second stage finished firing and cut off. The CRS-14 Dragon was now in orbit.
About a minute later, Dragon and the second stage separated with the spacecraft’s solar panels deploying and unfolding about two minutes after that. Around two hours, 20 minutes into the flight, the vehicle’s Guidance, Navigation and Control bay door opened, which also revealed the grapple fixture that the space station’s robotic Canadarm2 will use to “catch” dragon before berthing it to the outpost.
“All around, it has been a successful mission so far, and a great start to the year, Jensen said during NASA’s post-launch press briefing. “I want to thank NASA, the Air Force and the [Federal Aviation Administration] for their support and hard work, especially their hard work over the weekend—it was a holiday weekend for Easter—to ensure today’s launch was a success.”
The vehicle is now beginning a two-day chase of the ISS. It is expected to rendezvous and berth with the outpost early Monday morning, April 4, 2018. Jensen told SpaceFlight Insider that Dragon performs hundreds to thousands of thruster firings to guide it toward the ISS beginning just a minute after separating from the Falcon 9 second stage. She said most of those will be for attitude adjustment and pointing, but a few major burns will be used to push the spacecraft from its initial insertion orbit to the football-field-sized complex.
This was the 32nd worldwide launch of 2018—the seventh by SpaceX. Additionally, this was the sixth Falcon 9 flight of the year—the fourth at SLC-40.
The next flight of a SpaceX Falcon 9 is slated to occur April 16 at SLC-40 and will see NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, launch. Just over a week after that, the company hopes to launch the Bangabandhu-1 satellite for the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. This will also be the first flight of a “block 5” Falcon 9.
Once the CRS-14 Dragon arrives at the ISS, it will spend about a month attached to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module. During that time, its cargo will be unloaded and unneeded equipment, including Robonaut2, slated for Earth return will be loaded into the capsule.