SpaceX's Dragon Capsule Encountered a Problem in Orbit


Three of the four thruster pods on the capsule failed to deploy.

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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 encountered had to do with the capsule's thruster pods. The system, he said, was inhibiting three of the capsule's four pods from initializing.

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

And, just before noon on Friday, it was looking like SpaceX's overrides worked. Dragon's solar arrays, Musk reported, deployed successfully:

Here's more detail on what went wrong, what went wrong, from Popular Mechanics:

The problem appears to be with small engines that steer the craft while in space. The capsule separated successfully and was about to deploy its solar panels when the small engines, called Draco thrusters, failed to activate. There are 18 Draco thrusters on the Dragon that SpaceX uses to control the spacecraft in orbit and to steer it to the correct reentry location. They are not very powerful, producing just 90 pounds of thrust each, but they are vital to the spacecraft's operation.

Those engines will be replaced, Popular Mechanics notes, in future capsules -- capsules that carry humans, rather than inanimate cargo, to space. 

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, 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.

Then again, NASA -- and space travel in general -- have a long, storied history of problems that are fixed at the last minute, through a combination of preparation and ad hoc ingenuity. If SpaceX has indeed solved the problems Dragon encountered in orbit -- if it goes on to successfully deliver its payload of supplies and fruit and Leto to the space station -- then it fits in well with that tradition. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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