SpaceX's next cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on Dec. 15 will be a landmark occasion. The Falcon 9 will be a "flight proven" rocket that originally launched last year will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Complex 40, transporting cargo for NASA in a previously flown Dragon capsule. The flight will mark SpaceX's 13th commercial resupply mission to the ISS.
The development of reusable rockets and spacecrafts is at the core of SpaceX's billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk's space business to explore the heavens. Musk has long touted reusable technology as the key to slash the cost of spaceflight and thereby open the heavens to greater exploration.
Over the past three years SpaceX has successfully brought Falcon 9 first stages back to Earth 19 times during orbital missions, and three of those landed boosters have flown again.
The only currently operational cargo vehicle capable of being re-flown, the Dragon capsule returns to Earth for soft, parachute-aided ocean splashdowns versus all other "uncrewed freighters" that are designed to burn up in our planet's atmosphere after their time at the ISS is done.
The gum-dropped shaped Dragon CRS-13, a 20-foot high, 12-foot in diameter vessel, will carry roughly three tons of science projects and supplies to the orbiting outpost and remain there for a month. Budweiser is getting in on the ISS science action, too – they will study the germination of barley, one of its main ingredients, on the orbiting outpost. It's part of a company initiative "to be the first beer of Mars." Other experiments include Plant Gravity Perception, which aims to study how plants sense and respond to gravity; Glucowizzard, an implantable blood glucose monitor that will have its accuracy studied on the station; and Space Debris Sensor, an externally mounted unit that will spend up to three years monitoring small debris impacts into the ISS.
The CRS-13 flight officially launches SpaceX's era of two functioning pads at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. It makes the return to NASA's Complex 40 site since a September 2016 explosion during preparations for a Falcon 9 static fire test that heavily damaged the launch site and support infrastructure as well as an Amos-6 payload. The rocket's cargo was a satellite owned by Facebook that was headed to orbit to supply Internet expansion in Africa.
The CRS-13 launch is projected to include a first stage landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Landing Zone 1, eight minutes after the launch which will generate a thunderous sonic boom along the Space Coast as it descends.
Ramping Up: SpaceX recently announced it will more than double its personal best for launches conducted in a calendar year in 2018. "We will fly more next year than this year, knock on wood, and I think we will probably level out at about that rate, 30 to 40 per year," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and COO, told SpaceNews in an interview.
With 16 launches completed and three to four remaining by year's end, SpaceX is tracking to perform around 20 launches this year. Remaining 2017 missions include the mystery Zuma payload, NASA's Commercial Resupply Services-13 mission, a launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites, and potentially the long anticipated debut of the Falcon Heavy. known as BFR, which is now targeted to launch during the first few weeks of 2018.
BFR has been in development since 2005. The three core, 27-engine, 230-foot tall mega-rocket will become the world's most powerful launch vehicle when it lifts off from pad 39A. It will deliver heavier payloads to higher orbits which should increase SpaceX's number of missions. The pair of side rockets will land at Landing Zone 1 at the Cape, while the return core will return to Space's drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles offshore.