SpaceX has become the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the culmination of years of work in partnership with NASA on developing human spaceflight capabilities. At 7:27 PM EST (4:27 PM PST), NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi left launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS.
SpaceX’s human launch program was developed under the Commercial Crew program, which saw NASA select two private companies to build astronaut launch systems for carrying astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil. SpaceX was chosen alongside Boeing by NASA in 2014 to create their respective systems, and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket became the first to achieve actual human flight certification from NASA earlier this year with the successful completion of its final, Demo-2 test mission, which flew to the ISS with two U.S. astronauts on board.
To get to this point, SpaceX had to complete a number of milestones successfully, including a fully automated uncrewed ISS rendez-vous mission, and a demonstration of both a launch pad abort and post-launch abort emergency safety system for the protection of the crew. During the Demo-1 mission, while all actual launch, docking and landing was handled by SpaceX’s fully autonomous software and navigation, astronauts also took over manual control briefly to demonstrate that this human-piloted backup would operate as intended, if required.
So far, Crew-1 is proceeding as expected, with a picture-perfect takeoff from Florida, and a successful recovery of the first-stage booster used on the Falcon 9 rocket used to launch Dragon. Crew Dragon ‘Resilience’ also departed from the second-stage of the Falcon 9 as planned at just after 10 minutes after liftoff, and there will be a 27 hour trip in orbit before the Dragon meets up with the ISS for its docking, which is scheduled to take place at around 11 PM EST (8 PM PST) on Monday night. Once fully docked, the astronauts will disembark and go over to the station to begin their active duty stay, which is set to last until next June.
From left, the crew of Crew-1: NASA’s Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins; JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi Image Credits: SpaceX
Three of the four astronauts on this mission have been to space previously, but for pilot Victor Glover, it’s his first time. These four will join NASA’s Kate Rubins, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on the station, bringing the total staff complement to seven (an increase from its usual six that NASA says will free up more time for the astronauts to perform experiments, as opposed to their tasks related to regular daily maintenance of the station).
This is the first time that astronauts have launched to space during a regular operational NASA mission since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011. It marks an official return of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities, and should hopefully become the first in many human flight missions undertaken by SpaceX and Dragon – across both NASA flights, and those organized by commercial customers.
Cornwall, in England’s far southwest, is known for antique fishing villages and snug, cliff-lined beaches. Soon it may be the scene of something very different: a small but growing space industry.
One day in a year or two, a modified Boeing 747 is expected to lift off from the long runway at the region’s airport, head out over the Atlantic Ocean and soar into the stratosphere. There, a rocket will drop from below a wing, fire its engines and ferry a load of small satellites into orbit, while the plane returns to the airport.
After six years of planning and fund-raising, construction of a bare-bones spaceport, budgeted at about 22 million pounds ($28 million), is beginning this month at the airport in Newquay.
The anchor tenant is expected to be Virgin Orbit, a part of Richard Branson’s Virgin universe. Its selling point: Putting satellites into orbit via aircraft can be done faster and with less infrastructure than earthbound rockets.It plans to bring its 747 (called the Cosmic Girl) and other gear being tested in the Mojave Desert to Britain with the help of £7.35 million from the U.K. Space Agency.
“At the beginning, people laughed at us,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of engagement for Spaceport Cornwall, the developer. “It took a lot of work to convince a lot of people.”
Among the better arguments: The spaceport, which is owned by the local government, could eventually provide 150 good jobs in what, despite its charm, is a region dependent on low-paid, seasonal work from tourism.
Britain is doubling down on the always risky space business after, some would say, years of neglect. Besides Cornwall, the government is putting money behind several other potential launch sites, including one on the remote north coast of Scotland, which is being tailored for an environmentally friendly rocket to be manufactured nearby.
This is all new for a country that does not have a deep history of rocketry or launching satellites into space. The case for spaceports in Britain is far from proven. In fact, some analysts say there are already too many such facilities, including in the United States.
“You do have to pinch yourself that the U.K is within a few years of launching satellites,” said Doug Millard, space curator at the Science Museum in London. “That is something that never would have been considered not so long ago.”
A big reason for the turnaround is Brexit. The decision to pull away from the European Union has heightened awareness that Britain, which has largely relied on European and American space programs for services like satellite navigation, would be at risk without its own space infrastructure. This year the space agency’s budget was bumped up 10 percent to £556 million (still a small fraction of NASA’s $22 billion).
Brexit has provided “a real stimulus to get us to think about what we actually need as a country in space,” said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency, in an interview.
But the decision to look skyward also coincides with the growing commercial use of space around the world, promoted by deep-pocketed investors like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mr. Branson, but also pushed along by a range of less prominent entrepreneurs and businesses.
Key has been the emergence of much smaller and cheaper satellites, some the size of a shoe box and costing a relatively small $1 million or less. Some are used for observation, such as measuring how much oil is stored in a tank farm, valuable data for energy investors. Others are planned to provide internet connectivity on earth and a key link in the burgeoning internet of things, essential for self-driving cars and smart kitchens.
“We are right at the beginning of this journey,” said Mark Boggett, chief executive of London-based Seraphim Capital, which is managing a $90 million space fund.
OneWeb filed for bankruptcy this year, but is involved in the hottest area of the satellite industry: the creation of so-called constellations, blizzards of coordinated satellites in low orbit, designed to provide blanket coverage for purposes like extending the internet to remote regions.
OneWeb is building its satellites at a factory co-owned by Airbus in Florida. The hope in the British government and space community is that OneWeb will build a future generation of satellites in Britain.
Over all, the government is trying to support activity in what is known as “new space,” a more agile and commercial approach to an industry traditionally dominated by government and military programs.
“OneWeb, and what we are doing on launch, is all about taking a really big role in that new economy,” Mr. Turnock said.
While Britain has participated in prestigious space activities like making a Mars rover for an upcoming European-Russian mission, it has catching up to do. Still, space experts say the direction the industry is moving could play to its advantage.
The launch vehicles that Britain is trying to nurture would be suited for smaller satellites that operate in low-Earth orbit, around 800 miles up, compared with about 22,000 miles for telecommunications giants that sometimes cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Smaller satellites also have much shorter life spans than the larger ones, implying the need for more of them, and more launches. Virgin Orbit says it plans to charge $12 million to take a nearly 700-pound payload of satellites into space.
Having nearby launch sites will fill a need for companies like In-Space Missions, a space service firm in Hampshire, outside London. Doug Liddle, the chief executive, said the company went all the way to New Zealand to launch a satellite this year, only to lose it when the rocket failed.
The new space economy is also more affordable for medium-size countries like Britain. “The small-satellite approach now means we are not going to spend our entire national budget on our space program,” said Martin Sweeting, a founder and executive chairman of a British university spinoff called Surrey Satellite Technology, a pioneer in small satellites.
Space is also becoming far more accessible to start-ups like Open Cosmos, which offers to build satellites and arrange their launch and early operation at a cost of $10 million or less. The company is one of many technology businesses clustered in Harwell, a community near the University of Oxford.
Among the neighbors are clients like Lacuna Space, which plans to deploy satellites for a range of uses like tracking cattle on vast Latin American ranches, and potential suppliers like Oxford Space Systems, which builds satellite-mounted antennas that unfurl once in orbit to send data to ground receivers.
“It is a small ecosystem; everybody knows each other,” said Rafel Jordá Siquier, the 31-year-old founder of Open Cosmos.
But not all the companies are start-ups. Airbus, the giant French maker of commercial aircraft, is also a major manufacturer of satellites and employs 3,500 people doing space work in Britain.
The company had been nervous about Brexit’s implications for those operations, but the government’s move into OneWeb offered some reassurance.
“The investment in OneWeb and focus of the U.K. on space is actually making Airbus go, ‘Look, the U.K. is a really good place to invest,’” said Richard Franklin, head of space and defense for Britain at Airbus.
That said, Britain’s ambitions face large unknowns and risks.
The launch technologies it is counting on are unproven. Virgin Orbit’s first test this year in the United States sputtered when the main rocket engine shut down. And the coronavirus pandemic has put huge financial strain on Mr. Branson’s empire, including the flagship, Virgin Atlantic. To help bolster the finances of the airline and other companies, the entrepreneur sold around $500 million of shares in Virgin Galactic, a space tourism business.
But Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president for special projects, said the 747 would come to Cornwall “when they are ready and they need us.”
The satellite market is also both competitive and turbulent. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, whose SpaceX has carried U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station and returned them safely to Earth, is building his own mega constellation satellite system, Starlink. Other technology companies are likely to follow, while many countries can now build satellites.
“One of the beautiful things about small sats is that anyone can make one,” said Alexandre Najjar, senior consultant at Euroconsult, a market research firm.
Still, Britain’s space entrepreneurs say having a launchpad near home might give them an edge.
”If we can get in a van and drive our spacecraft up to Scotland or Cornwall, the whole process becomes much more straightforward,” said Mr. Liddle, the satellite builder.
There’s a reality TV competition show in the works that will feature a 2023 trip to the International Space Station as the grand prize, Deadline reports. The production company behind the show, which will be called “Space Hero,” has booked a seat on a SpaceX Dragon crew spacecraft set to make the trip to the ISS in 2023, and will make it the reward for whoever comes out the winner in a competition among “everyday people from any background who share a deep love for space exploration,” according to the report.
The competition will be an ersatz astronaut training program of sorts, including physical challenges, as well as puzzles and problem-solving tasks, as well as emotionally challenging scenarios, according to Deadline. That will lead up to what producers are currently planning will be a live episode featuring a global viewer vote about who ultimately will win. The show will also include documenting the winner’s ISS trip, including their launch and 10-day space station stay, as well as their return journey and landing.
To bring all these pieces together, the production team is working with Axiom Space, a private space travel services provider and mission operator, as well as NASA, with which it’s discussing what might be done in terms of STEM education add-ons for this planned programming.
Deadline says that “Survivor” creator and reality industry giant Mark Burnett has previously tried multiple times to create a reality show with a trip to space as the main component. One such effort, an NBC-based program called “Space Race,” was created in partnership with Richard Branson and focused on Virgin Galactic, but it was ended after that company’s fatal testing accident in 2015.
There’s also a movie production in the works that’s bound for the space station as a filming location, and those efforts are being spearheaded by Tom Cruise, who will star in the yet untitled project. NASA has repeatedly said it welcomes increased commercialization of low-Earth orbit and the ISS, and it also intentionally sought out private partners like SpaceX for its U.S.-based astronaut launch vehicles, in the hopes that they would be able to book other, private clients for flights to help defray mission costs.
NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more Moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.
NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the Moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.
Already, NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intutive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.
The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the Moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device; X-ray imagers; a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields; and an advanced Moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.
NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.
SpaceX has raised $1.9 billion in new funding, per a filing with the SEC from Tuesday which was first spotted by Reuters. The company had been reported to be in the funding process earlier by Bloomberg, which pegged the post-money valuation of SpaceX at $46 billion following this raise.
The new funding for the still private SpaceX hardly comes as a surprise; The Elon Musk -led private launch company has been seeking funding since earlier this year, but Bloomberg reported last week that it increased the size of investment it was seeking owing to strong demand from the investment community.
The round was reportedly oversubscribed, though there isn’t yet much information available about who participated in the round (Bloomberg’s report said Fidelity Investments was among the largest in, but they did not confirm). SpaceX might be better positioned than ever to seek significant resources from investors, given the string of high-profile successes it has recorded recently.
Those include completing the first ever private human spaceflight mission to take off from U.S. soil. That mission, Demo-2, took off from Florida in May and returned the astronauts it carried to Earth earlier this month after a two-month stint at the International Space Station. Its successful completion means SpaceX can now regularly supply transportation services to and from the ISS – and puts them closer than ever to offering commercial spaceflight services for private tourists, researchers and more.
SpaceX has also made good progress on its Starlink spacecraft development program, with a successful short test flight of the prototype this month, and it won multiple multi-year contracts from NASA and the U.S. government for launch services this year.
It’s currently in the process of a very capital-intensive endeavor, too, which could explain the size of the round: Deploying Starlink, the massive satellite constellation that it will own and operate, and that will provide commercial and residential broadband internet services to customers in hard to reach areas once it’s active. Just this morning, SpaceX launched 58 more Starlink satellites, but it will have to launch many more before it can achieve its goal of global coverage.
SpaceX and NASA have made history once again, successfully completing the crucial final phase of their Demo-2 mission for the Crew Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX’s first spacecraft made for human flight. This marks the end of this last demonstration mission, which flew NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30, where they remained for two months prior to making the return trip on Sunday.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon appears to have performed exactly as intended throughout the mission, handling the launch, ISS docking, undocking, de-orbit and splashdown in a fully automated process that kept the astronauts safe and secure throughout. This final phase included recovery of Behnken and Hurley at sea in the Gulf of Mexico using SpaceX’s GO Navigator recovery vessel, which went smoothly, with the capsule loaded onto Navigator around 3:18 PM EDT, and the hatch opened at roughly 4:00 PM EDT, and the crew exiting starting at around 4:06 PM EDT. There were a number of private vessels in the area (you can see them in the gif below), which is a violation of the security conditions, but SpaceX established a perimeter and continued, which is essentially the best they can do under these conditions.
With the successful completion of this mission, everything should be in place to allow for the full certification of Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 as rated for human spaceflight according to NASA’s exactly standards – provided a final, thorough review of the entire mission from start to finish doesn’t reveal any remaining issues that need tidying up. Again, based on what we’ve seen, it looks like a more or less picture-perfect mission for Demo-2 from start to finish, so I wouldn’t expect any major barriers to certification. Note that this is also the first human splashdown in 45 years – when the final Skylab crew did that in 1974.
That means that the next step for Crew Dragon is to begin regular service as America’s primary source of transportation to and from the Space Station . The first of its operational missions, designated Crew-1, is currently set to take place sometime in late September, and will carry three NASA astronauts and one JAXA astronaut to the station for a regular tour as crew members of the orbital science platform.
This now also means that NASA will have control over its own transportation method for its astronauts (and astronauts from friendly nations) to and from the Space Station since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. The Commercial Crew program was designed to provide just that, but rather than having NASA responsible for the launch and transportation spacecraft as with the Shuttle, it’s partnering with private companies to offer it commercial service for those flights – SpaceX is now the first to complete the testing and development program, and Boeing is in process of becoming a second commercial ride provider for NASA to rely on.
NASA wants to ensure continued access to the ISS, and is also hoping to save money long-term and enable the commercial space industry by sharing rides aboard the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner with commercial astronauts. SpaceX has already partnered with a company to begin selling return trips aboard Crew Dragon (without an ISS stop) for private spacefarers, and Dragon has a total of seven potential seats for flying people, with NASA missions only ever slated to occupy four of those spots.
Private launch companies seeking to lower the coast of reaching space continue to develop new vehicles, and the latest to attempt a trip to space is Interstellar Technologies (IST), a Japanese private launch company founded in 2003. The company first launched a vehicle in 2017, but the launch didn’t go exactly as planned and failed to reach space – in 2019, its MOMO-3 sounding rocket did break the Karman line, though just barely, and unfortunately its MOMO-5 sounding rocket launched today did not make space as planned, instead apparently suffering some kind of malfunction and loss of control around the time it reaches max Q, or the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure prior to exiting Earth’s atmosphere..
MOMO-5 took off at 8:15 PM UTC (4:15 PM EDT), and liftoff seemed to go smoothly. This demonstration launch was meant to build on IST’s existing development program, and put it closer to establishing a new, affordable rocket option fo redelivering small payloads to orbit using a small, affordable rocket that the company describes as a “family sedan for the stars.”
IST’s approach is interesting it that in doesn’t claim to be cutting-edge; instead, the company says that it focuses on leveraging “legacy methods” of rocketry, along with advances including additive manufacturing and more modern materials to reduce costs as much as possible and lower the bar in terms of affordability to serve a wide range of customers. To some extend, that’s similar to the approach taken by SpaceX and Rocket Lab, but IST’s approach is even less focused on modernization, and more intent on efficiencies, than some of its operational competitors, which could theoretically give it a cost advantage once it starts serving companies with regular commercial launches.
MOMO-5 launched from Hokkaido, Japan, in a mission rescheduled from the end of 2019 and earlier this year due to a number of delays, including COVID-19 and the May holidays observed in the country. MOMO-5 measures a little over 30-feet tall, and weighs around 2,200 lbs, making is smaller than Rocket Lab’s Electron.
IST says that MOMO-5 terminated its flight earlier than planned due to a manual “emergency stop” order delivered from the command center, and subsequently fell safely to the surface of the sea. More details about the cause of the early termination will be released later.
SpaceX on Saturday launched two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the accomplishment is a tremendous one for both the company and the U.S. space agency. At a fundamental level, it means that the U.S. will have continued access to the International Space Station, without having to rely on continuing to buy tickets aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do so. But it also means the beginning of a new era for the commercial space industry – one in which private companies and individual buying tickets for passenger trips to space is a consistent and active reality.
With this mission, SpaceX will complete the final step required by NASA to human-rate its Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, which means that it can begin operationally transporting people from Earth essentially as soon as this mission concludes (Crew Dragon still has to rendezvous with the space station tomorrow, and make its way back to Earth with astronauts on board in a few weeks). Already, SpaceX has signed an agreement with Space Adventures, a private space tourism booking company that has previously worked with Roscosmos on sending private astronauts to orbit.
SpaceX wants to start sending up paying tourists on orbital flights (without any ISS stops) starting as early as next year aboard Crew Dragon. The capsule actually supports up to seven passengers per flight, though only four seats will ever be used for official NASA crew delivery missions for the space station. SpaceX hasn’t released pricing on private trips aboard the aircraft, but you can bet they’ll be expensive since a Falcon 9 launch (without a human rated capsule) costs around $60 million, and so even dividing that by seven works out to a high price of entry.
So this isn’t the beginning of the era of accessible private spaceflight, but SpaceX is the first private company to actually put people into space, despite a lot of talk and preparatory work by competitors like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. And just like in the private launch business, crossing the gulf between having a private company that talks about doing something, and a company that actually does it, will absolutely transform the space industry all over again.
SpaceX is gearing up to launch tourists as early as next year, as mentioned, and while those tourists will have to be deep-pocketed, as eight everything that SpaceX does, the goal is to continue to find ways to make more aspects of the launch system reusable and reduce costs of launch in order to bring prices down.
Even without driving down costs, SpaceX will have a market, however niche, and one that hasn’t yet really had any inventory to satisfy demand. Space Adventures has flown a few individuals by buying tickets on Soyuz launches, but that hasn’t really been a consistent or sustainable source of commercial human spaceflight, and SpaceX’s system will likely have active support and participation from NASA.
That’s an entirely new revenue stream for SpaceX to add to its commercial cargo launches, along with its eventual launch of commercial internet service via Starlink. It’s hard to say yet what kind of impact that will actually have on their bottom line, but it could be big enough to have an impact – especially if they can figure out creative ways to defray costs over successive years, since each cut will likely considerably expand their small addressable audience.
SpaceX’s impact on the launch business was to effectively create a market for small satellites and more affordable orbital payloads that simply didn’t make any economic sense with larger existing launch craft, most of which were bankrolled almost entirely by and for defence and NASA use. Similarly, it’s hard to predict what the space tourism market will look like in five years, now that a company is actually offering it and flying a human-rated private spacecraft that can make it happen.
Private spacefarers won’t all be tourists – in fact, it could make a lot more financial sense for the majority of passengers to and from orbit to be private scientists and researchers. Basically, imagine a NASA astronaut, but working for a private company rather than a publicly-funded agency.
Astronauts are essentially multidisciplinary scientists, and the bulk of their job is conducing experiments on the ISS. NASA is very eager to expand commercial use of the ISS, and also to eventually replace the aging space station with a private one of which they’re just one of multiple customers. Already, the ISS hosts commercial experiments and cargo, but if companies and institutions can now also send their own researchers as well, that may change considerably how much interest their is in doing work on orbit, especially in areas like biotech where the advantages of low gravity can produce results not possible on Earth.
Cost is a gain a significant limiting factor here, since the price per seat will be – no pun intended – astronomical. But for big pharma and other large companies who already spend a considerable amount on R&D it might actually be within reach. Especially in industries like additive manufacturing, where orbit is an area of immense interest, private space-based labs with actual rotating staff might not be that farfetched an idea.
Marketing & Entertainment
Commercial human spaceflight might actually be a great opportunity to make actual commercials – brands trying to outdo each other by shooting the first promo in space definitely seems like a likely outcome for a Superbowl spot. It’s probably not anyone’s priority just now, given the ongoing global pandemic, but companies have already discussed the potential of marketing partnerships as a key driver of real revenue, including lunar lander startup ispace, which has signed a number of brand partners to fund the build and flight of its hardware.
Single person rides to orbit are definitely within budget for the most extreme marketing efforts out there, and especially early on, there should be plenty of return on that investment just because of how audacious and unique the move is. The novelty will likely wear off, but access to space will remain rarified enough for the forseeable future that it could still be part of more than a few marketing campaigns.
Cruise probably isn’t the only one to consider the impact of a space-based motion picture project, and you can bet at least one reality show producer somewhere is already pitching ‘The Bachelor’ in space. Again, it’s not going to be within budget for every new sci-fi project that spins up, but it’s within blockbuster budget range, and that’s another market that grew by 100% just by virtue of the fact that it didn’t exist as a possibility before today.
It’s hard to fully appreciate what kind of impact this will have, because SpaceX has literally taken something that previously wasn’t possible, and made it available – at costs that, while high, aren’t so high as to be absurd. As with every other such expansion, it will likely create new and innovative opportunities that haven’t even been conceived, especially once the economics and availability of flights, etc. are clarified. GPS, another great space-based innovation, formed the bedrock of an industry that changed just about every aspect of human life – private commercial spaceflight could do the same.
SpaceX made history today, flying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, titled ‘Demo-2’, is for the final demonstration mission in the human rating process of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that once this mission is complete, the launch vehicle will finally be certified for operational use for regular transportation of people to space. This was the second attempt, after an initial launch try last Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.
This is the first time ever that humans have been aboard a SpaceX vehicle as it launched. To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have succeeded in delivering multiple cargo payloads to orbit, but Behnken and Hurley are the first people to make the trip with the private spaceflight company.
SpaceX also successfully landed its first stage booster from the Falcon 9 used today – which means it will recover the first private spacecraft booster that has ever delivered human astronauts to space.
NASA created the Commercial Crew space program to spur the development of private launch vehicles that would also be able to serve commercial customers in addition to the agency, in order to defray the cost of launch overall. Both SpaceX and Boeing ended up placing winning bids on the Commercial Crew contracts, and have subsequently developed human launch systems, though SpaceX is the first to actually fly people on their vehicle after Boeing encountered some unexpected issues in their last uncrewed demonstration flight.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
It’s been multiple decades since a human took off from U.S. soil on a brand new launch vehicle, and this is also the first time anyone has flown to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was officially retired in 2011. Returning U.S. spaceflight capabilities also means NASA won’t have to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) – could save more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.
Today’s launch kicks off a multi-week mission for Behnken and Hurley, which next involves a rendezvous with the ISS around 19 hours from now. Crew Dragon will first take around 30 minutes to perform a manual control test, wherein Behnken and Hurley will take over and fly the spacecraft themselves. This isn’t what would normally happen on a normal Crew Dragon mission, since the spacecraft is designed to make the trip to ISS on its own operating entirely in an automated manner.
After that manual control test, Crew Dragon will once again take over and then fly the remainder of the way to the ISS, where it’ll dock itself with an entry hatch on the station. From there, Behnken and Hurley will transfer over to the station, where they’re set to stay for a period of between six and sixteen weeks, depending on NASA’s determination of how long the mission should last. This is somewhat dependent on staffing requirements on board the ISS, since currently there’s only one U.S. astronaut there in an operational capacity, and Hurley and Behnken will be tasked with assisting with experiments and maintenance on the station.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley aboard the rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The inaugural flight is the first manned mission since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Saul Martinez/Getty Images)
Once it’s determined when they’re coming back, they’ll climb back aboard the Crew Dragon, seal it up and then detach from the station. This return part of the program is also designed to be fully automated, with the spacecraft preforming the necessary boost-back engine firing to control its re-entry and descent. Once in atmosphere, it’ll release its parachutes to slow the fall back to Earth, and coast to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX crews will recover the capsule and provide the astronauts their ride back to dry land.
SpaceX plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year if all goes well, and it has also signed agreements to begin offering berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips (likely with an extremely high price tag) as early as next year.
SpaceX is once again preparing to make history – the private spaceflight company is set to launch its Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in collaboration with NASA today. This is the second time they’ve prepared to launch this mission, after an attempt on Wednesday last week was scrubbed due to bad weather. Today’s attempt is set for 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) and preparations, along with the launch itself, will be streamed above starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT).
The launch will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and once again weather is a concern for today’s launch window. SpaceX and NASA have an instantaneous launch window today, which means they only have the one shot to take off – if the weather isn’t cooperating at 3:22 PM EDT, they’ll have to re-attempt the launch again, with the next possible window set for tomorrow, Sunday May 31.
This is the first time ever that SpaceX will be launching humans aboard one of its spacecraft – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have the honor of being those first passengers. The mission itself is actually technically still a test, the final demonstration mission in the multi-year development of Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s first human-rated spacecraft. This launch will serve as the proof that Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that carries it, is ready for human-rating, after which it will be ready for regular operational service, flying U.S. and allied astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.
That will mean the U.S. once again has domestic human launch capabilities, something it hasn’t been able to claim since it ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. That’s a big deal for a number of reasons, but primarily because it means that NASA won’t rely on buying berths on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the ISS, which will help it save money and ultimately control its own access to Earth’s orbital lab.
If successful, SpaceX will be the first of NASA’s two Commercial Crew partners to achieve this milestone. The other, Boeing, is still in the process of working out the kinks of its CST-100 Starliner human crew capsule, which encountered errors during its first uncrewed demonstration mission, resulting in the need to run that launch again sometime later this year, and then, depending on how that goes, fly its first human flight hopefully in 2021. SpaceX, meanwhile, is set to begin operational missions with Crew Dragon later this year, if all goes well with Demo-2.
Provided the launch occurs today, Behnken and Hurley will then spend 19 hours on orbit as they make their way to rendezvous with the Space Station for docking. They’ll then staff the station for a period of between a few weeks and a few months, depending on NASA’s decision regarding their ultimate mission length. That will involve helping with station maintenance and conducting experiments, and then they’ll re-enter Crew Dragon and make the trip back to Earth for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown and recovery once their time at the station is over.