SpaceX has taken one small step toward sending astronauts into space, with the successful first launch of the Crew Dragon capsule early Saturday morning.
Affixed to the top of a Falcon 9 booster, the rounded cone capsule of the Crew Dragon blasted off in a blaze of fire and smoke from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday. The unmanned launch is the first stage of the Demo-1 mission, designed to test the capabilities of the capsule over the next week, as it heads toward the International Space Station (ISS).
Though no human crew were on board, locked within the capsule was a flight dummy — nicknamed Ripley — and an anthropomorphic plushie of planet Earth designed to indicate when the capsule had reached the zero gravity. The capsule was also carrying around 400 pounds (~180 kg) of crew supplies and equipment to mimic future missions.
“This is really a significant achievement in the history of American spaceflight,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator prior to launch.
The historic launch, which was celebrated by cheers and applause at Kennedy Space Center, comes afterpushed the maiden flight back from an expected launch in 2018. The site of the landmark launch was Pad 39A, which has previously seen NASA’s Saturn rockets carry astronauts to the moon aboard Apollo spacecraft and the famous launches of NASA’s space shuttles.
Although launch was a success, SpaceX still have a giant hurdle to leap before the demonstration mission is complete. The capsule is currently enroute to the International Space Station (ISS) and should dock with the space laboratory on Sunday at approximately 6 a.m. ET.
It will remain at the ISS until March 8, at which point it will begin arguably the most important part of its demonstration: Successfully returning to Earth. The capsule is fitted with enhanced parachutes and will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
Speaking of the Atlantic Ocean, the reusable Falcon 9 booster that launched Crew Dragon successfully landed on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship drifting along in said ocean, approximately 10 minutes after lift-off.
As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, the space agency handed contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop rockets that could send astronauts back to space. NASA have not launched humans to space since 2011, when the Space Shuttle program ended. In the meantime, the agency has paid for spots on the Russian built Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of over $80 million per set. That makes today’s success particularly important, helping chart a course for NASA to bring launches back to American soil and keep the costs down.
“We want to make sure we keep our partnership with Russia which has been very strong for a long period of time,” explained Bridenstine before the flight. “but we also want to make sure we have our own capability to get back and forth to the International Space Station”.
The Crew Dragon capsule is an enhanced version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which has ferried cargo from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS) on 16 previous occasions. This iteration can carry seven human passengers, which it will eventually carry to the ISS in low Earth orbit. Provided this demo mission proceeds as planned, the Crew Dragon will have to demonstrate its safety in one more “in-flight abort test” scheduled for later this year.
And if it passes that test, SpaceX and NASA will finally be ready to make another giant leap —for the first time since 2011.