Astronauts have launched to orbit from the United States for the first time in nearly a decade, heralding a thrilling new era of human spaceflight.
At 3.22 P.M. Eastern Time today, Saturday, May 30, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off on a Falcon 9 rocket from the historic Launch Complex 39-A at Cape Canaveral in Florida – once used to launch astronauts to the Moon, and to launch the Space Shuttle – on the Demo-2 mission.
Today however it was the turn of a new breed of spacecraft, a commercial venture funded by NASA. Crew Dragon is the first-ever private human vehicle to head for orbit, the result of years of hard work.
It will now take astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the spacecraft 19 hours to reach their destination, the International Space Station (ISS), 400 kilometers above Earth. Here they will remain for one to four months, before they return home.
“This is everything America has to offer in its purest form,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the launch. “Times are tough right now. But I hope this moment in time is an opportunity for everybody to reflect on humanity and what we can do when we work together.”
The astronauts arrived at the launch site in a Tesla car, supplied by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s other company. They rode an elevator up to the spacecraft at the top of the rocket, towering 70 meters above the ground, before entering.
After running through pre-flight checks and getting approval to launch from mission control, the spacecraft lifted off despite the possibility of inclement weather. The launch had been delayed from Wednesday, May 27 because of bad weather, but things cleared enough this time for the launch to go ahead.
About eight minutes after the launch, the first stage of the Falcon 9 landed on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean. Rocket landings have become the norm on SpaceX launches – but never on a human flight before.
Another four minutes later and Crew Dragon separated from the second stage of the rocket, flying free in space with humans for the first time ever.
The astronauts will now make the journey to the ISS, where they will then join the three people already there – NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner – who traveled on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft earlier this year.
Crew Dragon will autonomously dock with the ISS, although Hurley will briefly manually control the spacecraft beforehand to check all its systems are working. If all goes well, the astronauts should enter the ISS tomorrow afternoon.
Prior to today, the only way for astronauts to reach the ISS was via Soyuz. NASA had been paying Russia more than $90 million per seat for rides, at some embarrassment to the agency over the last nine years.
In 2004, NASA was directed by President Bush to retire the Space Shuttle and find alternatives. It flew for the final time in July 2011, the last time humans had launched to orbit from U.S. soil – with Doug Hurley himself flying the shuttle, Atlantis.
Under President Obama, a new program began in 2010 – called the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program – to replace the shuttle with privately-built spacecraft. SpaceX was ultimately contracted, along with Boeing and its Starliner vehicle, to build new spacecraft for NASA. They received $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion in funding respectively.
Today is the initial culmination of that program, with SpaceX being the first of the two to launch. Boeing is expected to launch its Starliner spacecraft with humans for the first time in spring 2021, after a botched test flight in December 2019.
SpaceX has years of experience flying spacecraft, having launched its cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft for the first time in 2010. Since then it has flown more than a dozen cargo missions to the ISS for NASA.
In March 2019 it performed an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, a major test for the company. However, in April 2019 that spacecraft exploded in a routine test back on Earth after a valve malfunction, a major setback for SpaceX in its ambition to launch humans.
Getting back on track to launch just a year later has been very impressive. Today’s flight no doubt marks the biggest moment in the company’s young history, having been founded in just 2002, and the pressure was on for everything to go smoothly.
Musk founded SpaceX with the goal of launching humans to Mars – something it hopes to achieve with its Starship vehicle it is currently working on, a new spacecraft designed to be the successor to Crew Dragon. SpaceX hopes to fly that vehicle to space with humans later this decade.
But proving they can launch humans safely is a crucial first step in that journey. With today’s successful flight, Crew Dragon can begin a new exciting period of commercial spaceflight never seen before.
SpaceX is under contract with NASA to deliver astronauts to the ISS, with its first fully operational launch – called Crew-1 – scheduled to take place in the coming months with four astronauts on board, following the Demo-2 test mission.
The company also plans, however, to use Crew Dragon to launch paying customers into space. This could include space tourists hoping to visit the space station, or other destinations – such as orbiting space hotels – at a cost of $20 million per seat.
Already several such flights have been announced, with space for up to seven people on each. One rumored customer is Tom Cruise, who Bridenstine said earlier this year had contacted NASA about flying on Crew Dragon to the ISS and shooting a movie there.
While Crew Dragon is limited to flying to low Earth orbit, SpaceX is hoping that its Starship vehicle – which will supposedly be able to carry more than 100 people on each flight – can reach more distant destinations.
This may include the Moon and Mars. Already NASA has picked Starship, along with two other vehicles, as a potential way for the agency to reach the Moon in 2024 as part of their Artemis program. And Musk has made no secret of his desire to land humans on Mars.
Before all that can happen, there’s the small matter of the Demo-2 mission to handle. It’s easy to overuse the word “historic” for this mission, but there’s little doubt that it is, and marks a major moment in the history of spaceflight.
SpaceX, a company founded just two years before Facebook, has now achieved something only three countries (the U.S., Russia, and China) have before in history – launching humans to space. No matter what happens next, that in itself is an incredible achievement.
“I’m really quite overcome with emotion,” Musk said following the launch. “It’s been 18 years working towards this goal, so it’s hard to believe that it’s happened.”