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December 10, 2010

Cheese in Space, and Other Tasty Tales of the SpaceX Dragon LAUNCH

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


In the afterglow of a successful first flight of its Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX (News - Alert) is discussing a number of details about the launch and the company. You may wonder about why the company put a round of cheese into orbit, but few would have imagined that the Falcon 9 would receive a last-minute pre-flight tune-up from an employee who was afraid of flying. 

We'll get to the cheese later, but certainly the unsung hero of the hour for helping the COTS-1 flight hit a Wednesday launch date is SpaceX technician Marty Anderson. During the final checkout, SpaceX discovered some small cracks on the nozzle of the second stage Merlin rocket engine. While the Falcon could have flown with cracks, asserted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk during the post-flight press conference, a decision was made to trim the nozzle out of "an excess of caution."

Anderson, who has a "huge fear of flying" Musk said, hopped a red-eye flight on Monday evening to arrive at the Cape on Tuesday morning and he carefully trimmed up the nozzle while other engineers concurrently re-ran all the simulations and analysis necessary to certify the hardware was flight-ready and then presented the results to NASA .

Spotting of the problem, fixing it, and verification the modifications for flight took place in about a two-day time frame - a speed that impressed NASA managers overseeing the flight and outside observers inured to lengthy problem fixes on the space shuttle and other NASA projects.

The modifications to the Falcon 9 second stage engine worked exactly as predicted, as did the full flight plan for the second stage. Once the Dragon spacecraft had successfully separated from the second stage, it was restarted and proceeded to an orbit of around 11,000 kilometers where it released eight small nanosatellites.

SpaceX would not release the names or details of the nanosatellites, saying it didn't "usually give out names of customers," but the U.S. Army has officially claimed ownership of one. The SMDC-ONE communications relay satellite, weighing in at less than 10 pounds and measuring 4 by 4 by 13 inches in size, is the first U.S. Army-built satellite in more than 50 years, according to a press release.

Musk said SpaceX only received a "small amount of money" for the nanosat delivery to orbit and the company was doing it to more to help out the small satellite business and help do "exciting things" to get people more interested in space.

One of the few goal's SpaceX didn't hit is to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9, an event that would have been the "icing on the cake" for the flight. The company ultimately hopes to be able to recover and reuse its first stage rocket hardware -- "the holy grail of space flight" -- but in order to do so is a highly challenging engineering problem that needs to trade off structural weight for survivability vs. the amount of payload to get to orbit. 

While the first stage wasn't recovered, the flight provided a lot of data and Musk expects to have a "shot" to recover an intact first stage in the future in two to three years and re-fly it on another mission.

Now, about that cheese...

At the Wednesday post-flight press conference, Musk said Dragon carried a "secret, humorous payload" to orbit and Monty Python fans would love it -- but he'd leave the reveal to Thursday's news cycle. Speculation immediately centered on SPAM being on board, alluding to a Monty Python skit and a remark Chuck Yeager made about early astronauts being nothing more than "Spam in a can."

Instead, Thursday's SpaceX press release and pictures on the company's Facebook page revealed a "Top Secret" payload container -- covered with a cow in boots a la the 1984 Val Kilmer movie, naturally -- and a wheel of French cheese inside of the container. The fromage (Le Bouere, from the label) was a homage to a Monty Python skit that can be found on YouTube. It is not known if the cheese will be consumed at the SpaceX holiday party or if ISS astronauts unloading a future Dragon resupply mission in 2011 or 2011 might find an extra surprise to nosh on.


Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf



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