Despite Falcon 9 setback, CRS-16 caps off incredible week for spaceflight

Falcon 9 with CRS-16 Dragon (SpaceX)

A launch success and an anomalous but mostly successful booster landing has set the stage for the US return to manned spaceflight. A Falcon 9 rocket carrying 3 tons of scientific experiments and supplies for the International Space Station launched from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral at 1816 UT on Wednesday, 5 December 2018 – a brilliant point of light over the Atlantic sky just as the honour guard carried President Bush out of Washington National Cathedral.

The launch was notable not for the complete success of the launch, which had a momentary launch window planned down to the last second, but for the near miss of the Falcon 9 first stage as it returned to Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX has already managed to make booster recovery routine, which left engineering teams scratching their heads as the hydraulic system that moves the booster’s titanium grid fins failed, causing the massive cylinder of aluminium-lithium to spin nearly out of control during entry and descent. Dramatically, in the final moment before splashdown, the booster’s landing legs popped out as in a normal landing, which seemed to stabilize the erratic motion just as the booster splashed sideways into the waves.

SpaceX emphasized that the flight provided an important validation of its autonomous landing system. Without human intervention, the booster flight computer determined that it did not have sufficient flight control to safely land at the Kennedy Space Center recovery pad, and instead ditched at low speed into the Atlantic about 3 km offshore. Conventional wisdom on the water landing of the Falcon 9 first stage is that the rocket is a writeoff. But because the booster landed intact, and despite the many unresolved questions which remain to be investigated, it is not unrealistic to suggest that the booster can still be refurbished. If nothing else, it can be repaired for static display or flight tests. What is certain is that the water landing is not a failure – but rather, a partial success with significant anomalies.

Today’s CRS-16 launch is just another triumph of engineering observed during an incredible week of achievement in spaceflight. Last Monday, the InSight geology probe landed on the surface of Mars; On Wednesday, the HySIS earth observing satellite and various small payloads entered polar orbit. This Monday, a Soyuz rocket carried US, Russian, and Canadian astronauts to the International Space Station, while hours later SpaceX delivered their first mission entirely composed of small commercially booked satellites to orbit. Just yesterday, a pair of new geostationary satellites serving India and Korea were lofted by ArianeSpace.

The rate of space development has reached a new and hectic pace, even for the individual players. SpaceX was fully prepared to launch both SSO-A from Vandenberg and CRS-16 from Kennedy within 24 hours of each other, which would have tested the very limits of SpaceX’s mission control and personnel management capabilities. Even with the CRS-16 launch delay, there was a significant amount of overnight work due to last-minute integration problems with the food for live rats in the RR-8 experiment.

The success of CRS-16 sets the stage for the return of US manned spaceflight. In just a few weeks, the next evolution of the Dragon capsule, the Dragon 2, will launch to the ISS and prove all key systems for a human-rated launch and recovery system. Later in 2019, the first US astronauts from a US spaceport since the end of the Space Shuttle program will arrive at the ISS, almost certainly in a SpaceX Dragon 2 – though NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program also includes the first US-based second source for manned spaceflight. Boeing’s Starliner will also be ready to fly people before the end of 2019.