After nearly two decades of efforts, Elon Musk's SpaceX aerospace company successfully launched its first two humans into orbit, ushering in a new era in human space travel in the United States. The flight was the first time in almost a decade that astronauts orbited from American soil, and SpaceX is now the first company to send passengers into orbit with a privately manufactured vehicle.
The two astronauts – experienced NASA aviators Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – rode into space in SpaceX's new automated spacecraft called Crew Dragon, a capsule designed to take people to and from the International Space Station. The duo, which was strapped into the slim, rubbery capsule, launched on Saturday at 3:22 p.m. CET on the Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The missile dropped the Crew Dragon into orbit about 12 minutes later. Now the couple will spend about the next day in orbit before trying to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.
This mission was hugely important to the United States
"Bob and Doug, on behalf of the entire launch team, thank you for flying Falcon 9 today," Crew Dragon chief engineer said to the two astronauts after they reached orbit. "We hope you enjoyed the ride and wish you a great mission." The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also landed successfully on one of the company's drone ships after launch, ensuring a smooth launch.
This launch is a crucial moment for SpaceX, a company founded by Musk with the express aim of sending people out into space and building settlements on Mars. It is also the last major test for SpaceX as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. As part of this initiative, NASA commissioned two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to develop new spaceships that can be used to regularly bring the agency's astronauts to and from the space station. After six years of developing and testing the Crew Dragon, SpaceX prevailed in the race to get people started. Today's mission is SpaceX's last major test flight for this program, which is designed to determine whether the Crew Dragon is ready to regularly transport NASA astronauts to the ISS in the coming years.
Even though this mission is considered a test, it was still hugely important to the United States. The last time people from the United States were put into orbit was during the last flight of NASA's space shuttle on July 8, 2011. Since then, the Russian Soyuz rocket has been the only vehicle available that has crewed flights to the ISS and had only one seat available Soyuz operates NASA with around $ 80 million.
The Commercial Crew Program was created to end NASA's dependence on Russia, but also to start a new way of doing business with NASA. Throughout the history of space travel, the government has been responsible for overseeing the design, production, and operation of spacecraft that put people in orbit. With Commercial Crew, NASA wanted the private sector to get involved. When NASA first placed orders for SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, NASA hoped that they would fly their vehicles by 2017. Technical delays and test errors brought the program back, but eventually SpaceX made it to the milestone today.
"They are laying the foundation for a new era in human space travel."
"They are laying the foundation for a new era in human spaceflight," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine before the launch. "It's an era in human space travel where more people have more space than ever before."
It is not yet an overall victory. Behnken and Hurley will spend the next 19 hours in orbit, trying to get some sleep before tomorrow's next big event: docking with the space station. And they also need their sleep. SpaceX and NASA had originally hoped to launch on Wednesday, May 27th, causing the astronauts to go through the entire pre-launch process. But bad weather forced a delay until today. "Bob and Doug, who have now gone through this exercise twice, need some rest," said Bridenstine after the start. "But I can guarantee that there will be no rest for a good time while you are up there in orbit."
The Crew Dragon is designed to automatically dock with the ISS without the crew having to enter anything. However, the two astronauts try to fly the capsule manually with their touchscreen monitor controls as they approach the station. After testing this interface, the astronauts hand over control to the Crew Dragon, which tries to automatically approach the station and lock itself on an available docking port. Docking is scheduled for Sunday at 10:29 am ET.
The two astronauts must finally come home – and test the Crew Dragon's ability to safely bring people back to Earth. NASA has not decided when the couple will go home. It will be somewhere between the next six and 16 weeks. When this decision is made, Behnken and Hurley will climb back into their Crew Dragon capsule and begin the intense journey back through the atmosphere of our planet. The Crew Dragon is equipped with a heat shield to protect the astronauts from the fiery descent. The capsule has a series of four parachutes that can be used to open the vehicle and gently lower it into the Atlantic. After hosing down, a SpaceX recovery boat greets the crew and brings them and their capsule back ashore.
At this point, the mission is considered a success. "I won't be partying until Bob and Doug are home safely," said Bridenstine.
If everything goes well, the flight could only serve as a start for the journey of SpaceX
There is a lot riding on this mission, but if everything goes well, the flight could only serve as the beginning of SpaceX's journey into human space travel. NASA plans to use the data gathered from this mission to certify the Crew Dragon for regular trips to and from the International Space Station with astronauts on board. SpaceX and NASA are already planning August 30 for the company's next Crew Dragon flight, which will transport four astronauts: Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker from NASA and Soichi Noguchi from Japan. That means we could soon enter a new era in which private companies routinely put people into orbit.
The ambitions of SpaceX don't stop there. The company is currently working on a new monster rocket called Starship that could one day bring people to space targets like the Moon and Mars. There are many hurdles between this bold vision and reality, but today's success is a step in the right direction for a company that wants to take people deeper into the cosmos.
"Everything on our way is geared towards this special moment to get people onto a spaceship," said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of construction and flight reliability at SpaceX, during a press conference. "And it's a big step."