Space Exploration’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle made it’s first flight at 11:45am PDT today, lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40 after a few delays (for FTS telemetry and a sailboat in the exclusion zone) and a computer-initiated abort at T-00:02 seconds.
SpaceX crews rectified the problem, an out-of-bounds signal from 1 of the nine engines, and reset the countdown to T-15:00 in about an hour. From there it was a straight run down to T-00:00 and liftoff of the vehicle SpaceX plans to use to launch supplies (and possibly crews) to the ISS.
The solid white rocket rode a million pounds of thrust, sending a roar across the Kennedy Space Center and trailing a long golden flame.
The first stage powered the rocket to an altitude of more than 50 miles before shutting down and separating from an untested upper stage at the edge of space.
Distinguished by a large niobium nozzle built especially for firing in space, the upper stage’s Merlin engine ignited and burned for several minutes to propel the rocket toward orbit.
Glowing red hot from the flaming rocket exhaust, the upper stage engine was supposed to burn for nearly seven minutes and shut down at T+plus 9 minutes, 38 seconds, according to SpaceX.
After a brief moment of stability, a camera mounted on the second stage showed the rocket begin to slowly roll. The rolling motion gradually accelerated up until SpaceX said the Merlin engine shut down. It is unclear if the upper stage powerplant fired for the full planned duration.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk says the Falcon 9 rocket achieved a nearly perfect orbit during today’s dramatic blastoff. GPS telemetry showed the rocket’s second stage and dummy Dragon capsule hit “essentially a bullseye,” according to Musk.
The apogee, or high point, was about 1 percent higher than planned and the perigee, or low point, was 0.2 percent off the target. The second stage shutdown was nominal, Musk told Spaceflight Now. The Falcon 9 was shooting for a circular orbit 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, high and an inclination of 34.5 degrees.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 apparently broke apart as it fell back to Earth after separation. The Freedom Star recovery ship has located debris in the water offshore. Musk says this wasn’t a primary objective of today’s launch, but SpaceX hopes to recover and re-use the Falcon 9 first stage in future flights.
Musk says the roll oscillation observed during the second stage burn was not expected, but the rocket still reached a near-perfect orbit. Engineers will study the issue before the next flight, which is scheduled for later this summer. The Falcon 9 rocket for the second flight is 100 percent complete, and the first operational Dragon capsule is 99 percent finished, Musk says. The duo will launch later this summer.