SpaceX's Dragon Capsule Encountered a Problem in Orbit

Megan Garber
The Atlantic

It's unclear right now what this will mean for Dragon's planned cargo delivery to the International Space Station.

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The Dragon capsule, in orbit during a previous mission (SpaceX)

This morning, just after 10:00 am East Coast time, SpaceX's Dragon capsule, carried on the company's Falcon 9 rocket, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Minutes after a seemingly successful launch, though, SpaceX reported a problem with Dragon. No further details were immediately provided, though John Insprucker, product director of the Falcon 9, told reporters that a news briefing would be conducted later today to discuss the situation. 

The capsule was projected to dock with the International Space Station early tomorrow morning to deliver supplies to the crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts currently calling the orbital laboratory home. (The Dragon carries scientific experiments --- among them materials to study the growth of plants and mouse stem cells in microgravity -- as well as spare parts for the station's air-recycling system, and a research freezer for preserving biological samples. It also carries food items for the guys living on the ISS -- among them fruit, according to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, provided by an orchard owned by the father of a SpaceX employees.) 

Following its delivery, Dragon was also expected to bring no-longer-needed materials from the ISS -- completed scientific experiments, used tools, waste products -- back to Earth.

According to Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and a guy who is having a rough few weeks, the problem Dragon is encountering has to do with the capsule's thruster pods. The system, he says, is inhibiting three of the capsule's four pods from initializing. SpaceX is now trying to fix the problem from its command centers here on Earth.

And, in a further update, Musk is reporting that the fixes (seem to have) worked: With the third thruster seeming to be operational, SpaceX is preparing to deploy Dragon's solar arrays.

Dragon's current flight is the third trip it's making to the ISS. The first was a demonstration flight, to prove to NASA (and everyone else) that the capsule was capable of reaching the station, docking with it, and returning to Earth intact. Having completed that test successfully, Dragon took its second flight in October 2012, under the terms of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. 

As The Wire's Philip Bump notes, a major error in the current mission could have major repercussions for SpaceX -- and by extension, I'd add, for NASA. The space agency, given its budget, is all but relying on privatized space travel to augment its own efforts; even if SpaceX's fixes allow Dragon to reach its destination and do its job -- and space travel, of course, has a long history of problems that are fixed at the last minute -- performances that are less than flawless have repurcussions that extend far beyond SpaceX itself. Don't let the fact that Dragon is carrying a single from Jared Leto's band fool you: The stakes here are, in every sense, high.

I'll update this post as we learn more.

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