SpaceX launches Falcon 9; Orbital’s Cygnus docks with international space station

SpaceX launched an upgraded, more powerful version of its Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sunday — a booster the company hopes will someday carry astronauts to the space station.
September 29, 2013

Sunday was a busy day for the commercial space industry. First, a new spacecraft built by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences docked at the international space station. Hours later, a souped-up rocket built by tech titan Elon Musk’s company SpaceX roared off a launch pad in California, a harbinger of grander things to come.

Orbital and SpaceX have NASA contracts to supply cargo to the space station. SpaceX had already reached the station three times, and Orbital matched the feat Sunday when its Cygnus spacecraft parked itself at the orbiting laboratory, ready to offload about 1,500 pounds of food, clothing and scientific experiments designed by students.

Orbital launched Cygnus on Sept. 18 atop the company’s rocket, Antares, from Wallops Island, Va. Although that launch went off without a hitch, a software glitch delayed Cygnus’s rendezvous with the station until Sunday. In the meantime, the company had to demonstrate that the unpiloted Cygnus could make delicate maneuvers in the vicinity of the laboratory, which is currently home to six astronauts.

“We had to go through some tough wickets, and we did with flying colors,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said. “It was a great day for the whole company.”

With the hardest part of this demonstration mission a success, Orbital is now on track to carry out eight cargo missions to the station under a $1.9 billion NASA contract. The company hopes to launch again in December. SpaceX, meanwhile, has a $1.6 billion contract for supplying cargo, and it is one of three companies, along with Sierra Nevada and Boeing, hoping to win a contract to taxi astronauts to the station.

The 224-foot Falcon 9 “version 1.1.,” which ignited Sunday on a pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, is an upgrade of a SpaceX rocket that has already gone into space five times. This version, with more powerful engines, carried to orbit a small satellite that will study “space weather.”

The company named its rocket “Falcon” after the Millennium Falcon spaceship from the “Star Wars” movies. The two-stage rocket has nine engines on its first stage, hence “Falcon 9.” SpaceX hopes to build a heavy-lift version that will employ three rocket cores strapped together.

SpaceX appears to be on a trajectory to compete for heavy-lift military launches, edging into the territory of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of aerospace behemoths Boeing and Lockheed Martin. And Musk, who runs SpaceX part time when not supervising the electric car company Tesla, has the even more audacious goal of colonizing Mars.

In a corporate webcast Sunday, SpaceX employees at the company’s Hawthorne, Calif., factory could be seen wearing “Occupy Mars” T-shirts.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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