A rocketship named Dragon breathed new fire into America’s human spaceflight programme on Saturday, carrying two astronauts on a much-anticipated adventure.
The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station (ISS) marked the first time since 2011 that humans had blasted off into orbit from US soil.
Equally significant, it heralded a new direction for crewed spaceflight, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX becoming the first commercial operator to carry astronauts into space under a public-private partnership set up by Nasa, the American space agency, in 2010.
Dragon, atop the powerful nine-engine Falcon rocket, lifted from the launchpad on schedule at 3.22pm ET, creating thick plumes of smoke and fire as it climbed over the Atlantic.
“Thank you for the first human ride for Falcon 9,” co-commander Doug Hurley said from the flight deck after Dragon reached orbit. “It was incredible … appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride to space.”
As on Wednesday, when the first attempt at launch was postponed with 17 minutes on the countdown clock, mission managers played cat and mouse with the weather, facing only a 50% chance of a “go” at daybreak, when thunderstorms, lightning and low clouds stalked Cape Canaveral. This time they caught a break.
The Falcon rocket booster, as has become almost routine for SpaceX, returned to Earth after first-stage separation and landed successfully on a recovery ship in the Atlantic for use on a future mission.
The capsule reached orbit 12 minutes later, and will spend 19 hours chasing the space station 250 miles above the planet before docking on Sunday. Hurley and Bob Behnken, veterans of space shuttle missions, will join their Nasa colleague Chris Cassidy, already resident with two Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS.
As a test mission paving the way for regular flights of Dragon later this year, every aspect of the spacecraft’s performance will be analyzed by SpaceX engineers. Behnken and Hurley will remain in orbit for up to 120 days.
“It’s been way too long,” Jim Bridenstine, the Nasa administrator, said of the launch. “It was just an amazing day. I’m breathing a sigh of relief but I won’t be celebrating until Bob and Doug are home safely.”
Although the public was urged to watch the launch remotely because of coronavirus restrictions, Donald Trump and his wife Melania, and Vice-President Mike Pence, attended in person. Trump has made space a priority through the foundation of space force as a branch of the US military, independent of Nasa, and the unveiling of his America First National Space Strategy.
He has also directed Nasa to land humans on the moon by 2024, for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972, although the agency’s deep-space Artemis program is many months behind schedule and over budget.
Some analysts, see Trump as seeking to exploit space programs set in motion before his presidency for political gain, channeling a message of US global supremacy even amid a pandemic to which his response has been roundly criticized.
Saturday’s flight was groundbreaking. The four-seat, touch-screen technology Dragon capsule is a 21st-century spacecraft bearing little resemblance to the largely mechanical Apollo capsules of the 1960s and Nasa’s fleet of space shuttle orbiters.
The crew eschewed the “tin-can” Astrovan that has been the crew transport since the US began sending humans into space in 1961, traveling to the launchpad in electric cars manufactured by Tesla, another Musk company, listening to music by AC/DC.
Their pressurized flight suits, partly designed by Musk himself, look like “something out the Jetsons” according to Leland Melvin, a former shuttle astronaut.
Some traditions remain. Dragon fired off from launchpad 39A, site of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s blast-off to the moon in 1969, the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981 and also the most recent crewed Nasa flight, the 2011 launch of the orbiter Atlantis, piloted by Hurley.
The launch is another milestone for SpaceX, Musk’s company, which has been ferrying cargo to the ISS aboard uncrewed spacecraft. One of two contractors under Nasa’s $6.2bn commercial crew program, SpaceX stole a march on Boeing by completing an uncrewed abort test in January. Boeing’s Starliner capsule suffered an in-flight anomaly during its test flight in December. Future launch dates are under review.
“It’s really hard to believe this is real,” Musk, the billionaire PayPal founder who doubles as the California-based company’s chief engineer, said before Wednesday’s launch attempt.
“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX, the result of a tremendous number of smart people working tremendously hard to make this day happen.”
SpaceX has overcome challenges of its own. A Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed in a ground test explosion at Cape Canaveral in April 2019 and in 2015, a Falcon rocket blew up 139 seconds into flight. On Friday, a prototype of its next-generation Starship spacecraft exploded during a ground test in Texas.
“The joke we make is that at Nasa, failure is not an option,” said Jeff Hoffman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a former Nasa astronaut.
“But at SpaceX failure is how they learn, how they get things right. And that’s been one of the ways that Musk has been able to make the progress and carry out the innovation that SpaceX has brought about.
“The age of the public-private partnership in spaceflight is here. Whether Nasa is going to save a lot of money by paying SpaceX rather than paying the Russians, that’s not clear. But the money is staying in the US. And for strategic and geopolitical reasons it’s good to have our own human launch capability.”
Since 2011, Nasa has been forced to rely on the Russian space agency, purchasing seats aboard ageing Soyuz spacecraft for up to $85m apiece. If this mission, known formally as SpaceX Demo-2, is successful, all that has changed.