On Monday, SpaceX is poised to end a 40-day launch drought in the United States with a cargo run to the International Space Station. The commercial space outfit will fire off its 12th resupply service mission for NASA from Kennedy Space Center using a fresh Falcon 9 rocket. On top, a Dragon capsule with over 6,400 pounds of supplies—a typical haul could include a variety of toilet paper (the Russians prefer a rougher texture while the Americans opt for a softer touch), fresh socks, and most importantly, tortillas. Mexican food has been a staple in low-Earth orbit since the 80s, so regular reups of Picante sauce are a must.
Last week, SpaceX performed a hold-down test fire of the CRS-12 Falcon 9 rocket and is targeting a 12:31 pm Eastern liftoff on Monday. Minutes after the booster delivers SpaceX’s Dragon to a preliminary orbit, it will attempt a return flight for touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Florida’s space coast.
Along with the groceries, ISS cargo drops have included hardware like an espresso machine, a handy 3-D printer, and even a relatively huge inflatable module currently being accessed and tested by the crew. In addition to the essentials, Dragon will be carrying enough resources to aid in over 250 research projects. This includes a NASA-funded experiment to study cosmic rays dubbed CREAM (for Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass), mice to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on vision and joints, and seeds to continue growing plants in microgravity. The agency also partnered with Hewlett Packard to send up a supercomputer to determine if off-the-shelf computer hardware can properly operate in space.
About 10 minutes after Monday’s liftoff, the Dragon will begin firing a series of carefully orchestrated thrusts and navigate toward its football field-sized destination. The spacecraft will rendezvous with the space station early Wednesday morning to be captured by NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli with Canadarm—a robotic grappling mechanism and Canadian folk hero that has served human operations in orbit for 30 years. Dragon will stay mated to the station’s Harmony module for a month until it flies home for a splashdown in the ocean off the coast of Baja, California.
This launch is notable for SpaceX: It will be the last time the company launches a factory-fresh spacecraft from its current line of Dragons on a mission. For future cargo runs with this version of the Dragon, the company plans to only use recovered and refurbished vehicles. SpaceX successfully launched its first refurbished Dragon in June and unceremoniously became the first to fly a reusable spacecraft to the station from American soil since the retirement of the space shuttle.
The shift will help SpaceX focus development efforts on its next generation Dragon V2, which is expected to carry both crew and cargo to low Earth orbit for NASA beginning in late 2018.
Before that, though, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. Though it has launched more times in 2017 than any year since its founding, SpaceX is still chipping away at a customer manifest that piled up after two separate explosions grounded the company for months at a time. SpaceX has been on a short launch hiatus after a dramatic double-header weekend of bi-coastal launches (and sea landings) in late June followed by an an expendable booster launch from Kennedy Space Center just days later in early July. Monday’s cargo run will be the 11th Falcon 9 launch this year and CEO Elon Musk hopes to get in a handful more before 2018.
After the Falcon 9 booster places Dragon in orbit, it’ll come roaring back to Earth using a new set of titanium-forged fins that improve aerodynamic control and can better resist reentry heat. SpaceX can perform a ground landing this time due to the relatively short orbital distance of Dragon’s destination, which will leave enough fuel in the booster tank to navigate back to the coast. The space station is an average distance of 250 miles above Earth’s surface, while some of the commercial payloads SpaceX delivers can go beyond 20,000 miles—requiring enormous thrust and the use of a drone ship to catch the depleted booster at sea.
If the landing is successful, it’ll mark SpaceX’s 14th successful rocket recovery since its first landing in December 2015. Since then, the company has launched two previously-flown Falcon 9 rockets on commercial missions, and is aiming toward the ultimate goal of a 24-hour turnaround window for a single booster.
Another big goal on the horizon: SpaceX will attempt to launch the maiden voyage of the Falcon Heavy—a triple-booster rocket that Musk claims will be the most powerful in operation—from Pad 39A at Kennedy. SpaceX leased the historic site (it hosted the Apollo 11 liftoff and over 80 Space Shuttle flights) from NASA for 20 years, and continues to renovate the pad for Falcon Heavy. The company hopes to launch the test flight in November, though Musk concedes that it will be “risky” and failure is likely. The billionaire went as far as saying that it will be a “win” if Pad 39A isn’t damaged or destroyed after the enormous rocket takes off. Musk’s landlords at NASA must be very excited.