SpaceX launches supplies to space station, lands Falcon 9 booster

'Baby came back,' Elon Musk tweets

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - SpaceX made a strong return to the Space Coast Sunday morning, sending a Dragon spacecraft filled with supplies to the International Space Station and sticking a landing of the Falcon 9 rocket booster.

The company's first liftoff attempt was scrubbed Saturday due to concerns with the positioning of the second stage engine nozzle.

The rocket launched at 9:39 a.m. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed minutes later.

"Baby came back," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the landing, marking the third time the company returned a booster for a ground landing.

Saturday, Musk said all systems were green for liftoff, but that is was his decision to call off the launch.

The billionaire added that the launch likely would have been fine.

 

“That 1 percent chance isn’t worth rolling the dice,” Musk said in a tweet. “Better to wait a day.”


The day before the first launch attempt, SpaceX announced it had discovered a small leak in the upper stage of the rocket, but late Friday night Musk tweeted that they would go ahead with the launch.

 

"We found a helium leak in the spin system on the second stage. As far as I know, we're going to proceed with the count and go into it," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said.

Florida scientists and astronauts were relying on SpaceX to launch supplies Saturday morning to the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9 launch carried more than the Dragon capsule packed with 5,500 pounds of provisions; it also carried a lot of expectations for the commercial company.

It was the first launch for SpaceX from Florida since the Falcon 9 explosion in September at nearby Space Launch Complex 40, which grounded SpaceX from flight for five months.

An investigation led the company to change the rocket's fueling methods. The Falcon 9 returned to flight in January for a satellite launch in California.

Central Floridians also waited for the historic launch pad 39A, dormant since the last space shuttle launch in 2011, to roar back to life.

The Falcon 9 cargo resupply launch was the first on the pad in more than five years.

"This is an absolutely outstanding, exciting time for our nation," Kennedy Space Center Director and former astronaut Bob Cabana said Friday. 

Built for the Apollo program, 39A is where Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin launched to the moon in 1969.

NASA started modifying the launchpad in 1975 for the space shuttle program.The first shuttle launch from 39A was Columbia in 1981.

SpaceX now leases the pad from Kennedy Space Center and began renovating around the clock after the Sept. 1 explosion damaged Complex 40, according to NASA.

Adding to the historic nature of the moment, SpaceX successfully rattled windows across the Space Coast as the Flacon 9 first stage came in for a landing. Air Force officials warned Central Florida residents that they would hear a sonic boom as the booster returned to Earth.

The second time SpaceX returned their booster to land, residents called 911 after hearing the boom.

[Watch the Falcon 9 booster landing below]

While locals reflect on past launches, Florida-based astrophysicists and biologists are among the scientists waiting to begin their experiments, which are getting a ride to the space station inside the Dragon spacecraft.

Dr. Daniel Batcheldor, Florida Institute of Technology astrophysicist, is the principal investigator for the charge injection device to be tested on the International Space Station Center for the Advancement of Science in Space or CASIS lab.

After more tests, Batcheldor hopes to use the small camera in the future to detect Earth-like exoplanets-- planets outside of our solar system-- on a small space telescope.

The camera will spend about six months outside the space station in the harsh, radioactive environment so Batcheldor and his team can determine if it stands up to space.

The FIT physics department head said he hopes the low-cost camera will eventually help push forward our understanding of exoplanets, as well as the hunt for life outside our solar system.

“I’m excited," Batcheldor told News 6. "It’s the first time as principal investigator for a payload going into space and launching from 39A.”

University of Florida plant biologists Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul and Dr. Robert Ferl, with the UF Space Plants Lab, will continue their research on the space station, learning about how plants adapt in space.

The team will send up 30 petri dishes of Arabidopsis thaliana seeds, which are basically weeds native to northern climates, to the space station.

After the Dragon cargo capsule is unpacked, the astronauts will take the seeds, planted in Jell-o-like nutrients, out of cold-stow bags and place them under the light of the Veggie planter to stimulate growth.

"Their first life is in spaceflight environment," Paul said.

Paul said they expect to see substantial differences between how the plants with gene mutations and those without mutations respond to spaceflight.

“Learning how a plant copes with the challenge of spaceflight contributes to our understanding of how plants might respond to new and challenging environments here on Earth as well,” Paul said.

The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to arrive two days after launch, delivering research, astronaut supplies and hardware to Expedition 50 and 51 crew members.

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