Tomorrow, SpaceX will become the first private company to launch an orbital spacecraft twice. Only government agencies have done this before.
The company will be launching a Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 to the International Space Station (ISS) from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral in Florida. This mission – which will be the 100th flight from 39A – will also see the first stage booster of the rocket attempt to land on a landing pad at Cape Canaveral.
This will be the 11th cargo mission under contract with NASA, called CRS-11 (Commercial Resupply Services). This spacecraft was launched for the first time in September 2014, on CRS-4.
And that’s a big deal. One of SpaceX’s goals is to bring down the cost of space travel by reusing components. They’ve already launched and landed multiple rockets, with one of these flying to space twice. Reusing the Dragon vehicle is the next milestone.
The launch was originally scheduled to take place yesterday, but storms hampered that effort. The company is now planning to launch tomorrow, Saturday, June 3, at 5.07pm EDT (10.07pm BST).
The list of vehicles that have gone to space, returned, and then flown again is small. Scaled Composites did it with their suborbital space plane SpaceShipOne in 2004, and Blue Origin’s New Shepard performed a similar suborbital feat in 2015 and 2016.
As for orbital vehicles, NASA’s Space Shuttle is no doubt the most famous reusable orbiter, flying from 1981 to 2015. The Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle completed one unmanned spaceflight in 1988. And more recently, the mysterious X-37B mini-shuttle returned from space after its fourth mission.
So reusing Dragon will be a big deal for SpaceX. The exact cost of refurbishing the spacecraft to fly again isn’t clear, but one would expect it was significantly cheaper than the cost of building a new spacecraft.
Dragon will be carrying vital supplies to the ISS, as well as a number of interesting experiments. One of these is NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which will be attached to the outside of the station in an attempt to study rapidly spinning neutron stars.
It will also be carrying experiments to monitor seedling growth in microgravity, study gaseous flames on the station, and see how particles called colloids move in gels and creams.
Dragon will stay aboard the station for one month, returning in early July with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Baja California. We don’t yet know if it’ll fly again, but if all goes to plan, we'll surely be seeing more Dragon vehicles make multiple trips to space.