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Weather Forces Delay for SpaceX Cargo Delivery and Rocket Landing

SpaceX had to delay the launch of a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station due to threatening clouds that came too close to the pad.
/ Source: NBC News

SpaceX had to delay the launch of a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station on Monday, due to threatening clouds that came too close to the pad.

The two-stage Falcon 9 was scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:33 p.m. ET Monday. But anvil clouds came within 10 nautical miles of the launch pad, in violation of flight rules. That led mission managers to scrub the attempt with two minutes and 39 seconds left in the countdown.

"Unfortunately, the west coast sea breeze won today," NASA launch commentator Mike Curie said.

Liftoff was rescheduled for Tuesday at 4:10 p.m. ET, but the forecast called for only a 50-50 chance of acceptable weather.

When launch does occur, it could provide a double shot of space history: delivery of the first zero-G espresso machine to the International Space Station, and the first controlled landing of a rocket stage on a seagoing platform.

Image: SpaceX Falcon
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket stands on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in preparation for Monday's launch.SpaceX

Espresso ... in ... spaaace!

The robotic mission's primary objective is to deliver more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kilograms) of supplies and payloads, ranging from food and other everyday essentials to scientific experiments to the Italian-built ISSpresso machine. This is the sixth of at least 12 uncrewed cargo resupply flights covered by a $1.6 billion contract between NASA and SpaceX.

ISSpresso is designed to provide the space station's crew — including NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who's spending a year in orbit — with fresh-brewed cups of espresso coffee in weightlessness. It's all part of a commercially funded experiment to make life more comfortable in space.

"We're going to learn a lot as this unfolds over the next year," Dan Hartman, NASA's deputy manager for the space station program, told reporters Sunday. "If an espresso machine comes back and we get a lot of great comments from the crew ... it's kind of like the ice cream thing, right, when we fly ice cream every now and then. It's just to boost spirits. ... Those kinds of things, I think, will be commonplace."

The machine was supposed to go into orbit in January, but the cargo schedule had to be shifted due to last October's fiery loss of Orbital Sciences' cargo shipment. As a result, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will have less than a month to enjoy ISSpresso's brews.

Third time's the charm?

SpaceX is hoping the launch will mark a milestone that the California-based company has been trying to reach for months: When the Falcon 9's upper stage and the Dragon capsule separate from the first stage and continue onward toward orbit, the first stage is due to execute a series of maneuvers to decelerate and descend to a floating platform that's stationed hundreds of miles off the Florida coast.

This is SpaceX's third opportunity to make such a landing, which could open the way for true rocket reusability and a dramatic reduction in the cost of spaceflight. During the first opportunity, in January, the Falcon 9 stage actually reached the platform — but it didn't come down straight due to a premature loss of hydraulic fluid in the control system. As a result, the stage hit the deck hard and blew itself into pieces.

The second opportunity, in February, turned into an ocean splashdown test when SpaceX determined that the seas were too rough to use the platform.

In advance of January's attempt, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated the chances of the maneuver's success at 50-50. In a tweet, Musk gave the same odds for the next attempt — but said there was an 80 percent chance of success by the end of the year, if only because there were so "many launches ahead."

If the landing works, a recovery crew will sail to the platform and secure the rocket stage. Then the stage will be brought back to Florida for inspection. Eventually, SpaceX plans to have rockets fly themselves back to land after launching space missions. The strategy is part of Musk's drive to reduce the cost of spaceflight to as little as 1 percent of what it is today — and blaze a trail for human settlements on Mars.

That aim may sound like science fiction, but Musk is capitalizing on the sci-fi appeal: He named the thruster-stabilized landing platform "Just Read the Instructions," which was a name that was used for one of the planet-sized drone spaceships in Iain M. Banks' Culture novels.