By Mark K. Matthews
WASHINGTON — An unmanned private rocket carrying nearly 1,300 pounds of supplies and experiments is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral at 10:10 a.m. EST today on a three-week mission to the International Space Station that’s being monitored closely by NASA and Capitol Hill.
If successful, it would be the third time California-based SpaceX has delivered station supplies for NASA. But it follows an Oct. 7 launch that was marred by the failure of one of its Falcon 9 rocket’s engines about 80 seconds after takeoff.
Though the rocket’s remaining eight engines enabled SpaceX to successfully complete that mission, the malfunction prompted an investigation - and some hand-wringing from federal policymakers.
Since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, the agency has been without its own vehicle to ferry crew and cargo to the station. So it’s relied on Russia to transport astronauts while encouraging commercial companies such as SpaceX to shoulder the burden of stocking the $100 billion observatory with food, supplies and science experiments.
The worry is that a technical problem with the Falcon 9 rocket or Dragon capsule could force NASA to rely even more on Moscow - although agency officials said they were confident that SpaceX and its vehicles were up to the task.
“SpaceX has shared with NASA the results of the engine anomaly and the steps taken to preclude any recurrence,” said NASA spokesman Josh Byerly. “The (space station) program review did not place any restrictions on the type or quantity of cargo scheduled to be launched.”
SpaceX officials have not released the full details of their inquiry into the malfunction - citing security concerns about publicizing rocket data for other countries to see - but they’ve attributed the problem to a hole in the engine covering.
“There was a material flaw that went undetected in the jacket of the Merlin engine that resulted in a breach,” said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell during a Thursday news conference at Kennedy Space Center.
The breach caused the engine to lose pressure, and computers responded by shutting it down, she said.
Shotwell added that the incident tested the redundant safety features that SpaceX had designed into the Falcon 9.
“This rocket has been designed to have an engine out,” she said.
In addition to the usual cargo of food and clothing, the SpaceX mission is carrying an experiment aimed at better understanding how plants “breathe” in the microgravity of space.
By learning how plants respond to limited amounts of air - caused by a lack of air flow aboard the station - scientists hope to one day breed hardier plants that are more resistant to ice or flooding back on Earth. Another goal is that these super plants one day could accompany astronauts on long-term space missions to provide food and help recycle the air supply.
“It’s an example of the type of research we are doing on the International Space Station today that can have an impact on future exploration,” said Marshall Porterfield with NASA’s life and physical sciences division.
A weather forecast released Thursday afternoon predicted an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch.