SpaceX is taking recycling to a whole new realm — all the way to orbit.
On this week's supply run to the International Space Station, SpaceX will launch a Dragon capsule that's already traveled there. The milestone comes just two months after the launch of its first reused rocket booster for a satellite.
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"This whole notion of reuse is something that's very, very important to the entire space industry," NASA's space station program manager Kirk Shireman said at a news conference Wednesday.
While the concept is not new — the space shuttles, for instance, flew multiple times in orbit — it's important for saving money as well as technical reasons, he noted.
This particular Dragon flew to the station in 2014. SpaceX refurbished it for Thursday evening's planned launch, providing a new heat shield and fresh parachutes for re-entry at mission's end. There were so many X-rays and inspections that savings, if any, were minimal this time, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for SpaceX.
The vast majority of this Dragon has already been to space, including the hull, thrusters and tanks. It's packed with 6,000 pounds of station cargo, including mice and flies for medical research.
While this Falcon booster is new, SpaceX will attempt to land it at Cape Canaveral following liftoff so it, too, can be reused. So far, first-stage boosters have flown back and landed vertically four times on the designated X at the Air Force station; even more touchdowns have occurred on ocean platforms, all part of an effort to save time and money.
The private SpaceX and NASA are discussing the possibility of flying a reused booster on an upcoming delivery mission.
Koenigsmann told reporters more and more reused capsules will carry cargo to the space station, each possibly flying three times. Dragon capsules are being developed to carry astronauts to the space station as early as next year; it's too soon to say whether those, too, will be recycled, he said.
Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the return of the first Dragon capsule to visit the space station. This will be the 12th Dragon visit overall and the 11th under NASA contract. The Dragon is the only unmanned supply ship that returns to Earth; the others are filled with trash and burn up on re-entry.
And by SpaceX's count, this will be the 100th launch from NASA's historic Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center. It's the same exact spot from which men flew to the moon and shuttles soared until their retirement in 2011. SpaceX is leasing the pad from NASA.
Fairly good weather is forecast for the 5:55 p.m. liftoff.
Two of the space station's five residents, meanwhile, are scheduled to return to Earth on Friday via a Russian Soyuz capsule. A Russian and Frenchman will be headed home, leaving two Americans and one Russian in orbit.