March 2, 2013 in Nation/World

SpaceX mission suffers setback

Thruster issue found, fixed on Dragon capsule
W.J. Hennigan Los Angeles Times
 
AP photo

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

SpaceX, founded in 2002, employs nearly 3,000 scientists, engineers and technicians, many who work at the company’s sprawling production facility in Hawthorne, Calif., where it builds rockets and capsules.

SpaceX is the only commercial company so far to resupply the space station. The company has secured a $1.6-billion contract to carry out 12 cargo missions.

A capsule carrying cargo to the International Space Station ran into trouble shortly after its Friday morning launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., but officials expressed confidence later in the day that the mission would go forward.

On its third commercial mission to the space station under contract with NASA, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, ran into a thruster issue with its Dragon capsule as it orbited around the Earth.

The capsule is packed with more than 1,200 pounds of food, scientific experiments and other cargo for delivery to the six astronauts aboard the space station. But trouble struck when SpaceX engineers found that only one of the spacecraft’s four thruster pods, which help maneuver the capsule in orbit, was working.

By late afternoon, NASA and the company said all four pods were operational and the mission was back on track.

“The company will continue to check out Dragon, test its systems … and perform some orbital maneuvers,” NASA said in a statement. “The next opportunity for Dragon to rendezvous with the International Space Station is early Sunday, if SpaceX and NASA determine the spacecraft is in the proper configuration and ready to support an attempt.”

In a conference call with reporters, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the problem was initially “frightening” but was under control. “I think it was essentially a glitch of some kind and not a serious thing.”

Musk speculated the problem could be traced back to a stuck valve or other blockage that caused a drop in pressure in the pods’ oxidizer tanks. But he cautioned that it was too soon to determine the cause.

NASA requires at least three thrusters be functioning for the capsule to approach the space station. Now that the thrusters are online, the space agency will review the data before giving the go-ahead for docking.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the agency would “make sure it doesn’t put the station in danger.”

The initial mission plan was that Dragon would reach and attach to the space station today and would return to Earth on March 25, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 300 miles off the coast of Baja California. Those plans are subject to change.

SpaceX already has performed successful NASA resupply missions to the orbiting outpost. There was one official mission in October, and a demonstration mission took place in May.

Both of those missions also had problems.

In May, a problem with the Dragon’s onboard sensors pushed back its capture by the space station to about two hours later than planned. In October, one of the nine engines on the massive Falcon 9 rocket experienced a problem and shut down shortly after launch. Because of the glitch, a satellite the rocket was carrying didn’t reach proper orbit, but the NASA resupply mission went on as planned.


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