SpaceX makes history with successful launch of NASA crew

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NASA and SpaceX have finally sent humans into orbit.
Image: SpaceX | NASA

A dream of nearly two decades has finally come to fruition. On Saturday afternoon, SpaceX, one of the world’s leading private spaceflight companies, successfully launched two NASA astronauts on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

At the time of this writing, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are on their way to the orbiting lab aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

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The flight marks not only the first launch from American soil since the space shuttle program was shut down but is also the first time a private space company has sent humans into space. Every aspect of the accomplishment is noteworthy in its own right and witnessing today’s launch was something truly powerful.

Second Time’s the Charm

On May 27, hopes were shot down when poor weather delayed what would have been a historic launch. Less than 17 minutes away from liftoff, the Demo-2 mission conducted by NASA and SpaceX had to be scrubbed.

Fortunately, a backup date was already in place and Saturday’s weather cooperated much better. Partly cloudy skies and calm winds graced NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atop SpaceX’s towering Falcon 9 rocket, Behnken and Hurley blasted into the history books at 3:22 p.m. ET.

Just 12 minutes later, the second stage of the rocket dropped the duo off in orbit for a 19-hour ride to the International Space Station. Crew Dragon’s chief engineer said to the astronauts upon their arrival in orbit, “Bob and Doug, on behalf of the entire launch team, thanks for flying with Falcon 9 today. We hope you enjoyed the ride and wish you a great mission.”

Back on Earth, SpaceX wasn’t done showing off. It managed to land the primary booster of the Falcon 9 rocket on its “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship located in the Atlantic Ocean. That feat is now the company’s bread and butter as it has successfully recovered (and reflown) several rockets.

This one is a bit different though as it has history written all over it. One day, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the rocket preserved in a museum as an artifact of a day that changed human spaceflight forever.

Technologically Advanced

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule isn’t just another spaceflight vehicle. It is a flying piece of technology. The sleek capsule flies autonomously while the astronauts inside have access to a touch screen interface of manual controls. It looks stunningly different from the analog switch filled space shuttles of yesteryear.

All of that didn’t just happen, however. SpaceX developed the vehicle for over six years. In the process, it beat out Boeing for the prize of taking NASA astronauts to space. Thanks to the success of Saturday’s launch, it is now ready to start regularly carrying astronauts to the ISS in the coming years.

Just the Beginning

For the United States, the Demo-2 mission carried a heavy burden of importance. It is the first time that humans launched into space from American soil since July 8, 2011. Since that day, only Russia’s Soyuz rocket has carried crews to the ISS. Notably, just one seat on the aforementioned craft costs NASA approximately $80 million.

A large part of SpaceX’s mission from the very beginning has been a focus on saving money. It hopes that by driving down the costs of commercial spaceflight, more people will be able to access it. For NASA, the benefits are also massive. It’s believed that the price of a seat on a SpaceX rocket is about $55 million. While that’s still a hefty sum, the savings are significant.

As such, the partnership between NASA and private space companies is just beginning.

This is the first phase of its long-term Commercial Crew Program. Originally, the plan was to launch astronauts in 2017. Despite technical delays and failures setting the program behind schedule, Commercial Crew has finally reached an extremely important milestone.

Prior to Saturday’s launch, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “They’re laying the foundation for a new era in human spaceflight… where more space is going to be available to people than ever before.”

What Happens Now?

Calling the Demo-2 mission a total success right now is jumping the gun. Behnken and Hurley still have the second half of their journey ahead of them.

The Crew Dragon capsule is scheduled to dock at the ISS around 10:29 a.m. ET on Sunday. Until then, the duo will try their hand at piloting the craft manually and testing some of its many features. When it’s time to dock, they’ll turn the controls back over to Crew Dragon for an automatic approach and latching procedure.

Bridenstine also commented that the astronauts will need to get some sleep while they’re orbiting at 16,000 miles per hour. He says, “Bob and Doug, who have now gone through this exercise twice, they need to get some rest. But I can guarantee you there will be no rest for a good amount of time while they’re up there in orbit.”

Eventually, the duo will return home. Right now, when exactly that will occur remains a mystery. NASA hasn’t yet decided when Behnken and Hurley will hitch a ride back to Earth. Their stay aboard the ISS could last between six and 16 weeks. At that time, the duo will return in their Crew Dragon capsule and splash down into the Atlantic Ocean. There, a SpaceX recovery boat will pick them up and bring them to shore.

Using data from the Demo-2 mission, NASA will certify the Crew Dragon for regular trips to and from the ISS. It’s worth noting that NASA and SpaceX are already planning their next manned launch.

The agency and SpaceX are targeting a date of August 30 for their next Crew Dragon flight. It will send three NASA astronauts—Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Shannon Walker—along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, to the ISS for an extended stay.

Regardless of what comes next, though, everyone can agree that Saturday’s Demo-2 launch is a monumental moment in the history of human spaceflight.

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