After nearly a decade, NASA has launched its first human spaceflight departing from US soil.
In a historic mission, South African entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private rocket company SpaceX successfully sent two NASA astronauts into orbit onboard the “Crew Dragon” spacecraft from the US state of Florida on Saturday, May 30.
The first attempt at the launch was set on Wednesday, May 27, but bad weather and the threat of lightning delayed the effort.
“Safety for our crew members is our top priority,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after the postponement of the initial launch.
The two NASA astronauts who took off on Saturday for the International Space Station are US military veterans Douglas Hurley and Bob Behnken.
Hurley, a 53-year-old retired US Marine, and Behnken, 49, a US Air Force colonel, each completed two previous spaceflights.
Hurley piloted Space Shuttle missions STS-127 in July 2009 and STS-135 in July 2011, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.
In accordance with Musk’s style and taste for futuristic flash and science fiction, the astronauts wore angular white uniforms with black trim. The “Crew Dragon” capsule also has three large touchscreens instead of the usual multitude of dials, knobs, and switches.
After launching its first human spaceflight departing from US soil in nearly a decade, NASA has officially started a new era of commercial space travel
A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. The “Crew Dragon” spacecraft atop the rocket’s upper stage separated 12 minutes later after achieving low Earth orbit.
“It is really neat, and I think the biggest testament to that is my 10-year-old son telling me how cool I am now,” Hurley told the Associated Press.
“SpaceX has gone all out” on the capsule’s appearance, he said. “And they’ve worked equally as hard to make the innards and the displays and everything else in the vehicle work to perfection.”
SpaceX “Crew Dragon” is a human-rated capsule that is capable of carrying up to seven astronauts to and from Earth orbit and beyond. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning carrying a significant amount of cargo and supplies to EarthEarth.
US President Donald Trump, among other important figures, attended the liftoff and nearly 4,000 people looked on from the Kennedy Space Center.
“I’m really quite overcome with emotion,” said Musk at a post-launch press conference. “It’s been 18 years working towards this goal. It’s hard to believe that’s happened.”
The journey ahead
The Crew Dragon is scheduled to dock at the International Space Station at around 10:29 a.m. eastern time on May 31 after a 19-hour journey, although the timing is subject to change. Behnken and Hurley will stay onboard until the spacecraft’s hatch opens, up more than two hours after docking.
The two astronauts will remain at the station for up to four months, joining NASA colleague Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who have been in orbit since April.
The next SpaceX “Crew Dragon” capsule is prepared for a launch scheduled no earlier than August 30.
According to NASA, at the end of the “Crew Dragon’s” mission, the spacecraft will autonomously undock with the two astronauts on board, depart the space station, and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
The capsule is set to land in the Atlantic Ocean along the Floridian coast, where SpaceX’s “Navigator” recovery vessel will pick it up and return it to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
“I’m breathing a sigh of relief,” said Jim Bridenstine on Saturday after the successful launch. “But I will also tell you, I am not going to celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely.”
Musk agreed, arguing that the “Crew Dragon’s” reentry and landing may be more dangerous than its launch. “We don’t want to declare victory yet,” he said. “We need to bring them home safely.”