Espresso in space, anyone? Italian astronaut orders up a cuppa as SpaceX rocket takes off

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla - A SpaceX rocket successfully launched a capsule to the International Space Station on Tuesday carrying an important piece of equipment - an Italian-made espresso machine ordered up by an Italian astronaut who has complained about having to drink American instant coffee for months.

The Dragon cargo ship blasted off carrying a load of food and supplies for the astronauts living in orbit aboard the ISS, Reuters and AFP reported.

The California-based company's Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 4:10 am Singapore time. An attempt at guiding the first stage of the rocket to land upright on an ocean platform was successful - sort of.

After sending the capsule on its way to orbit, Reuters reported that the rocket's first stage flipped around, fired engines to guide its descent, deployed steering fins and landing legs and touched down on a customised barge stationed about 322 km off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

"Rocket landed on droneship, but too hard for survival," SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter. During a previous landing attempt in January, the rocket ran out of hydraulic fluid for its steering fins, causing it to crash into the platform.

The last bid to recycle the rocket, in January, also ended in failure. The rocket collided with the ocean platform and broke into pieces.

Recycling the rocket is significant because it would potentially save huge amounts of money. However, the cargo missions have gone much more smoothly for SpaceX.

The primary purpose of the flight, the 16th of a Falcon 9 rocket, is to deliver more than 1,950 kg of food, clothing, equipment - including the espresso machine - and science experiments to the US$100 billion (S$136 billion) research laboratory that flies about 418 km above Earth.

The cargo ship separated from the second stage of the rocket about 10 minutes into the flight, as planned, and carried on toward the ISS - no doubt much to the delight of Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian flight engineer from the European Space Agency who's been on the station since late last year.

The Dragon rocket carried a new kind of espresso machine to the ISS, called, the ISSpresso designed by Lavazza and the Italian aerospace firm Argotec. While it uses standard Lavazza espresso packets to make coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, the Atlantic Monthly reported an Argotec spokesman saying that the machine has been tweaked to prevent spills and leaks in the space station's minimal gravity.

Tuesday's cargo mission is the sixth official journey that SpaceX has contracted with NASA as part of a deal for 15 such trips worth more than US$2 billion.

The supply is on track to arrive at the orbiting outpost on Friday, when it will be grabbed by the space station's robotic arm - operated by Cristoforetti - and guided in for berthing.

The reusable cargo craft will stay in space for about five weeks, as astronauts reload it with equipment to return to Earth.

SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the station following the retirement of the space shuttles. In addition to the NASA contract, SpaceX is working on a passenger version of the Dragon capsule and has dozens of contracts to put commercial communications satellites into orbit.

The company also is working on a heavy-lift version of the Falcon rocket, which uses 27 engines, compared with the nine currently flying. The Falcon Heavy is expected to make its first test flight late this year.