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SpaceX Aims to Blaze New Trail for Rocket Technology

Image: Landing legs

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has been outfitted for the first time with landing legs, visible in their folded-up position in the foreground. Caroline Trump / SpaceX

SpaceX's cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station is due to send a host of innovations into orbit on Friday — ranging from a laser communicator to cracker-sized satellites to a pair of claw-footed legs for the station's android robot. But the biggest innovation may be what happens to the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket after it's done its main job.

After a series of delays, the Falcon 9 is scheduled for launch at 3:25 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with about 4,600 pounds (2,100 kilograms) of cargo packed into SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

A few minutes into the flight, the Falcon's second stage is set up to separate and continue the trek to orbit. The first stage, meanwhile, will be commanded to relight its rocket engines and slow its descent toward the Atlantic Ocean. If everything works properly, the launch vehicle will unfold a set of four landing legs, practice a landing maneuver — and then settle down into the sea gently enough to be recovered and reused.

"The entire recovery of the first stage is completely experimental," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of mission assurance, told reporters. "It has nothing to do with the primary mission."

"If we can't make rockets reusable, the cost is just prohibitive."

SpaceX estimates the chances of successful recovery at only 30 to 40 percent this time around. But in the long term, the company is counting on the retro-rocket, fly-back technology to bring down the cost of getting to space by a couple of orders of magnitude.

"Every mode of transportation we're used to ... they're all reusable," SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said last year. "If we can't make rockets reusable, the cost is just prohibitive."

Elon Musk's grand vision

The South African-born, 42-year-old Musk has applied his dot-com fortune and his billionaire brain power to several innovative ventures — including the Tesla electric-car company, the Solar City power provider and the Hyperloop mass-transit concept. But SpaceX's quest for rocket reusability arguably ranks as Musk's biggest bet.

Low-cost, reusable rockets are a central part of Musk's grand vision of opening the space frontier to new industries, and eventually to Mars-bound settlers. Musk once told NBC News that turning humanity into a multiplanet species would be "an insurance policy on life as we know it."

Building the low-cost, high-tech Falcon 9 rocket represented a big step toward creating that insurance policy. Further advances were made over the past year and a half during a series of flights by a rocket-powered takeoff-and-landing test vehicle known as the Grasshopper. Now Musk is hoping Friday's experiment will demonstrate that reusability is within reach.

SpaceX is working toward the day when a Falcon 9R rocket will loft its payload spaceward, and then fly itself back to a landing pad to be refueled for the next flight, just as airplanes are today.

Technically speaking, NASA's space shuttle was reusable — but the cost of refurbishing shuttle components after each flight boosted the estimated price tag past the $1 billion mark.

Even without reusability, SpaceX's launches are much cheaper than the shuttle flights were, although they aren't yet carrying astronauts. The company's $1.6 billion contract with NASA to send 12 unmanned resupply flights to the space station averages out to $133 million per launch. Other Falcon 9 launches go for less than $60 million.

If Musk's bet on low-cost reusability pays off, rocket customers eventually could get as much as a 99 percent discount.

More innovations ride the Dragon

While SpaceX's recovery team keeps a lookout for that Falcon 9 first stage and the experiment's outcome, the second stage and the Dragon capsule will continue spaceward.

The Dragon's cargo includes supplies for the crew — plus a spare spacesuit and other components that are meant to take care of a potential leak problem that nearly drowned an Italian spacewalker last year.

Such equipment would come in handy during a spacewalk aimed at fixing a computer problem that almost forced a postponement in the SpaceX launch last weekend. As it turned out, the launch was delayed anyway, a little more than an hour before Monday's scheduled liftoff, due to a helium leak on the Falcon's first stage.

Friday's weather outlook for Florida is worse than it was on Monday. Forecasters put the chance of acceptable weather for launch at just 40 percent. If the Dragon takes off, it's scheduled to reach the space station on Sunday, clearing the way for the repair spacewalk next Wednesday. If the launch is scrubbed, the spacewalk would happen on Sunday instead.

Here are some of the other notable payloads that are ready to go on the SpaceX launch:

  • After Dragon separation, the Falcon 9's second stage is to eject five small CubeSat spacecraft into orbit. One of the CubeSats is a NASA experiment called PhoneSat 2.5. The 4-inch-wide (10-centimeter-wide) satellite contains a solar-powered Samsung Nexus S that can send down pictures of Earth as seen by orbit. This is the fifth PhoneSat to be tested, and it's expected to blaze a trail for constellations of tiny networked satellites.
  • Another CubeSat, known as KickSat, is to send out about 100 spring-loaded "Sprites" that pack a power source, sensors and communication system onto a cracker-sized circuit board. The project, which was funded through Kickstarter, will broadcast data from the Sprites to ground stations back on Earth.
  • The Dragon is carrying up a pair of legs for Robonaut 2, the android robot that's been undergoing tests on the space station since 2011. These seven-jointed legs aren't made for walking, however. Instead, they're outfitted with claws that can grab onto footholds in zero-G. Eventually, NASA wants to use Robonaut 2 as a robo-spacewalker capable of conducting routine maintenance tasks.
Image: Robonaut 2
Robonaut 2 is designed to use its legs to move around in zero gravity while leaving its mechanical hands free for tasks requiring more dexterity. Bill Stafford / NASA JSC
  • An experiment called Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, will demonstrate laser-beam communication from the space station to Earth. The team behind the experiment says such a system could eventually boost the communication rate for deep-space probes from 200 to 400 kilobits per second to 50 megabits per second. "It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL," OPALS systems engineer Bogdan Oaida said in a NASA preview.
  • One of the scientific experiments aboard the Dragon is a plant growth chamber, part of a study to see if vegetables grown in space are safe enough (and palatable enough) for consumption. The Veg-01 experiment will grow red romaine lettuce in a specially lit, 11.5-inch-wide (30-centimeter-wide) tray. When the Dragon leaves the station and returns to Earth, it will bring the lettuce tray back for lab tests.
  • Another space station experiment, Project MERCCURI, is sending 40 cultured samples of microbes into space to compare growth rates in space and on Earth. The microbial samples were collected from sports stadiums and other noteworthy sites — including TODAY's Studio 1A.
TODAY goes to space! Our microbes do, anyway 8:51