SpaceX Launches Used Dragon Capsule on Historic 3rd Cargo Run to Space Station

paceX successfully launched its 18th commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station today (July 25), then stuck a rocket landing at the company’s nearby landing site, LZ-1. 

After a one-day delay caused by bad weather, SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 6:01 p.m. EDT (2201 GMT) from Launch Complex 40 here at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying the company’s robotic Dragon cargo capsule toward the orbiting lab.

Cheers erupted from crowds of anxious onlookers as the Falcon 9 roared to life. The rumble from the rocket’s engines set off car alarms at the NASA press site during both launch and landing. 

This flight marks the 18th mission for SpaceX under its commercial cargo resupply services contract with NASA.

Of the missions flown to date, this is the seventh overall to feature a preflown Dragon and marks the first time the same Dragon spacecraft has flown to the station three times — CRS-6 in April 2015, the CRS-13 mission in December 2017 and now CRS-18

To mark this achievement, Dragon is sporting two ISS decals, along with another to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (Apollo 11 ended 50 years ago yesterday, splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.)

“Historically today, 50 years ago, we were able to complete Kennedy’s challenge to get men to the moon,” Bill Specht, NASA’s deputy manager for ISS Transport Integration, said during a prelaunch news conference yesterday. 

He explained that NASA and SpaceX want to honor not only the Apollo 11 astronauts but also Chris Kraft, who passed away on Monday (July 22) at the age of 95. “He was the founder for mission control and laid the groundwork for how we operate in space today,” Specht said of Kraft, who was NASA’s first flight director. 

Today marks the first time a Dragon has flown to the space station three times, but it won’t be the last. Each of the next two cargo resupply missions — CRS-19 and CRS-20 — will also be the third flight for their respective Dragon spacecraft. 

In the same prelaunch news conference yesterday, SpaceX officials explained that each Dragon cargo craft is certified to fly three times before retirement. The California-based company currently has a fleet of 13 Dragons and flies each one approximately once every 1.5 years. 

SpaceX also says that turnaround time will be much faster once its updated cargo vehicle, known as Dragon 2 (as opposed to the current Dragon 1), enters service beginning with the CRS-21 mission in late 2020. That craft will land in the Atlantic Ocean (versus the Pacific like the current Dragon), and all vehicles will be refurbished in Florida, further reducing downtime.