SpaceX rocket lifts off, aims for ocean landing

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 14, 2015 4:44 PM

By Irene and Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - An unmanned SpaceX rocket blasted off from Florida on Tuesday to send a cargo ship to the International Space Station and then attempt a landing on a platform in the ocean.

The 208-foot (63-meter) tall Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon capsule, thundered off its seaside launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:10 p.m. EDT. A previous attempt on Monday was delayed by poor weather.

Once the capsule is released for its three-day journey to the station, the rocket’s first stage is programmed to flip around, fire engines to steer its descent and deploy landing legs to touch down on a customized barge stationed about 200 miles (322 km) off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann put the odds of a successful landing at 75 or 80 percent, though his boss, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, on Monday saw a less than 50 percent chance.

With dozens of launches - and landing attempts - on the manifest, Musk wrote on Twitter that he estimates an 80 percent chance a Falcon 9 will nail the landing before the end of the year.

During a attempt in January, the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid for its steering fins, causing it to crash into the platform.

A second attempt in February was called off because of high seas, but the rocket successfully ran through its pre-programmed landing sequence and hovered vertically above the waves before splashing down and breaking apart.

If it succeeds at an ocean landing, SpaceX intends to bring its rockets back to a landing pad at the launch site so the boosters can be refurbished and reflown, slashing launch costs.

The primary purpose of Tuesday’s launch is to deliver more than 4,300 pounds (1,950 kg) of food, clothing, equipment – including an Italian-made espresso machine -- and science experiments to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.

SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the station following the retirement of the space shuttles. In addition to a recently extended 15-flight NASA cargo delivery contract worth more than $2 billion, SpaceX is working on a passenger version of the Dragon capsule and has dozens of contracts to deliver commercial communications satellites into orbit.

SpaceX also is working on a heavy-lift version of the Falcon rocket using 27 engines, compared with the current nine. It is to make its debut test flight late this year.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Dan Grebler)