A post launch news conference on today’s SpaceX CRS-3 mission to the International Space Station shed a few key details on the mission itself, as well as the subsequent effort to recover the first stage in the Atlantic ocean.
For anyone who viewed the launch, it was difficult to miss the rather odd plume of what appeared to be soot coating the side of the booster before it left the pad. According to Elon Musk, who addressed the press by phone from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Ca. the plume was the result of excess water pad technicians had sprayed prior to liftoff. In other words, according to Musk “we got dirty water on ourselves.”
Also, once in orbit, the Dragon experienced a problem with a single isolation valve, causing a momentary delay in one of the thruster pods coming on-line. Fortunately, a back-up valve functioned nominally, and the Dragon is well on its way to a Sunday morning berthing.
As for the first stage recovery attempt, the results are still not in, but the presence of high waves; reported at 10-20 feet in the recovery zone, meant that even if the first stage descended to a hover level, the pitching seas would have confused the sensors, leaving little chance of a smooth touchdown anyway. As it was, the sea state was bad enough to prevent recovery vessels from approaching as near as they would have liked. Clearly, even if the stage is located, and is intact, a recovery effort would be a perilous affair.
On the the other hand, data clearly indicated the F9 first stage had successfully come through the transonic barrier, and, making use of more powerful thrusters and an increased nitrogen supply, effectively counteracted the spin encountered on the previous recovery attempt, ultimately achieving a zero roll rate.
That last point is highly significant, meaning SpaceX has cleared one of the major hurdles in its development path, a fact which prompted Elon Musk to observe that the company was “starting to connect the dots” on re-usability.
On a related note, in response to a question posed by Joeseph Abbot of the Waco-Tribune Herald, Musk revealed that SpaceX will be using two different versions of the F9R for testing, with the first one, F9R Dev 1, remaining at McGregor for low altitude tests, while the other goes to Spaceport America in New Mexico for high altitude testing. Interestingly, Musk left to press conference at that point in order to look at telemetry coming in from today’s recovery attempt in the Atlantic.
On that note, one other tidbit emerged. NASA, which had been planning on sending a P-3 observation plane to photograph the incoming first stage, had to call off the attempt due to icing conditions. SpaceX however, using a different plane, was in the the air, and will be the source of any incoming imagery.