Under the cover of darkness, four astronauts departed planet Earth on Sunday in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship.
The astronauts — Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover of NASA, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency — launched from Cape Canaveral at 7:27 p.m. ET, bound for the International Space Station.
The Crew Dragon capsule they are riding in is supposed to detach from the upper stage of its Falcon 9 rocket around 7:39 p.m. ET and slip into orbit.
“We’re honored to have you as our crew as we begin operational missions to the ISS. Have an amazing trip, and know that we are all for one,” SpaceX’s mission controller Jay Aranha said to the crew shortly before liftoff.
“To all the people at NASA and SpaceX, by working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, ‘Resilience,'” Hopkins, the mission’s commander, said from his seat inside the spaceship. “And now it’s time for us to do our part. Crew-1 for all.”
Crew-1, as the mission is called, is supposed to dock with the orbiting laboratory around 11 p.m. ET on Monday, then the astronauts will live and work there for six months. The Resilience capsule, as the astronauts named their ship in the weeks preceding the launch, will stay docked to the ISS throughout the crew’s stay in space.
“It means functioning well in times of stress or overcoming adverse events. I think all of us can agree that 2020 has certainly been a challenging year,” Hopkins said, noting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, economic hardship, and social unrest. “Despite all of that, SpaceX and NASA have kept the production line open and finished this amazing vehicle.”
The mission beat 50/50 odds of weather conditions being unsafe to fly the Falcon 9 rocket. Rain, clouds, and static electricity were closing in on the launchpad all day, but skies remained clear. The launch had previously been scheduled for Saturday evening, but weather prompted NASA and SpaceX to delay 24 hours.
Crew-1 is SpaceX’s second-ever spaceflight with people. The first was an experimental jaunt that lasted about two months. Assuming Crew-1 does indeed stay at the ISS for half a year, SpaceX would smash a record more than 45 years old for the longest human spaceflight ever flown from US soil.
“We are ready for the six months of work that is waiting for us on board the International Space Station, and we are ready for the return,” Hopkins told reporters during a pre-flight briefing.
NASA funded the Crew Dragon’s creation with about $3 billion, and engineers at SpaceX designed, built, and tested it to exacting government requirements. Agency heads on Tuesday certified the system for regular flight, formally kicking off an era of commercial spaceflight for NASA that had been decade in the making.
“It’s not an exaggeration to state that, with this milestone, NASA and SpaceX have changed the historical arc of human space transportation,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, told reporters on Thursday. “I believe we are about to see a major expansion in our ability to work, play, and explore space.”
A long and crucial ‘operational’ SpaceX mission
NASA’s human spaceflight abilities were curtailed after the Space Shuttles were retired in 2011. The goal of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which commenced around the same time, was to spur competition between private companies in order to foster a new commercial spaceflight industry. The government has spent more than $6 billion on the effort in total, according to The Planetary Society. That includes the development of another commercial launch system through Boeing.
SpaceX showed its system was ready this summer by flying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS in a test flight called Demo-2.
After reviewing the data from that flight, along with the plan for Crew-1, NASA officially certified SpaceX for human spaceflight on Tuesday. That makes this the world’s first human-rate commercial launch system.
“Thank you to NASA for their continued support of SpaceX and partnership in achieving this goal,” Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO, said in a statement. “This is a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the moon, travel to Mars, and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary.”
A newly reinforced heat shield for the fiery fall back to Earth
When the astronauts are ready to return, they’ll climb back into Crew Dragon, undock from the space station, then blast the spaceship’s thrusters to push them toward Earth, eventually allowing gravity to pull them back down. Parachutes will slow the Crew Dragon’s fall before it splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
After the Demo-2 mission concluded, SpaceX inspected the toasted capsule and spotted something unusual: deep erosion on the heat shield. That thermal protection system is a collection of heat-resistant tiles that line the spaceship’s underbelly. It deflects and absorbs heat that can reach 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit while the spaceship plummets through the atmosphere.
One of those tiles suffered “a little bit more erosion than we wanted to see,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said in a September briefing.
So for Crew-1, SpaceX reinforced the heat shield with stronger materials. NASA then tested five samples of the new tile in a wind tunnel that simulates the environment of reentry.
“I’m confident that we fixed this particular problem very well,” Koenigsmann said.
The beginning of SpaceX’s human spaceflight
SpaceX has been sending its Cargo Dragon spaceship to the ISS on cargo resupply missions for NASA since 2012.
Combined, the two types of Dragon spacecraft are scheduled to launch into space seven times over the next 14 months, leading to an unprecedented situation for SpaceX.
“Every time there’s a Dragon launch, there’ll be two Dragons in space,” Benji Reed, senior director of human-spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said earlier this month.
That’s because each of the crewed SpaceX missions should overlap for a little while. The next astronaut launch, Crew-2, is scheduled for late March 2021. But the Crew-1 astronauts don’t plan to leave the space station until April. The same thing should happen with the following mission, Crew-3: It’s expected to launch in September 2021, so should tag up with Crew-2 in orbit.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is also hard at work on another launch vehicle called Starship. Musk hopes to launch a prototype on a short “hop” at the company’s burgeoning development site in south Texas in the coming weeks. SpaceX is working with NASA to possibly land that vehicle on the moon in 2024. Musk then wants to begin crewed launches in the mid-2020s and later start building permanent cities on Mars, perhaps in the 2030s.
SpaceX thinks its Starship project could also dramatically speed up international travel with point-to-point flights at hypersonic speeds.
Susie Neilson contributed reporting.