Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
On May 30, after almost 9 years, the first crewed orbital launch from the US soil took place from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley has been placed into orbit bound for the ISS - International Space Station.
After almost two decades of working toward this mission, a Falcon 9 lifted off and the Crew Dragon spacecraft separated after achieving Earth orbit. It took only 12 minutes from the lift-off till the separation.
This was the second attempt for the historical Demo-2 mission. The first one took place on May 27 but was rescheduled due to the bad weather conditions.
After docking with the ISS, the astronauts were greeted by the current Expedition 63 NASA mission commander Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts with whom they will spend next 4 months aboard the station.
The first uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, Demo-1, took place more than a year ago, when it successfully docked with the ISS and safely returned to Earth, testing all the required steps to qualify for human transport flights. This time, with astronauts on board, it was the opportunity to see how everything operates as a complete system, the crew and the spacecraft as well as the crew and ISS after their integration.l
After 2005, when NASA started The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program with the aim to support the development of commercial cargo vehicles, in 2010 it started the commercial crew program with Space Act Agreement initiatives to SpaceX and other private companies. This was the long-awaited step into the NewSpace era. Four years later, SpaceX, along with Boeing, won the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts to complete the development and testing of the commercial crew vehicle and for initial flights to the ISS.
With delays from the initial plan, in March 2019 SpaceX finally flew the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time. After that, Demo-1 spacecraft was destroyed in a static-fire test of the SuperDraco thrusters. In January 2020, an in-flight abort test of the spacecraft was a success, when the capsule separated from a Falcon 9 rocket in flight. Demo-2 crewed mission was the next step.
Besides finally enabling the US to again launch their astronauts from US soil and with US-made spacecrafts, this launch presents a major milestone in commercializing key space activities once reserved only for huge and tedious governmental projects. Bringing competitiveness, agility, pragmaticism and the advancements of commercially available technologies, the NewSpace companies bring a much needed, fresh initiative to the space table. Paired with the thoroughness and ‘you can never have too many tests’-approach of ‘old-schoolers’, it results with the rapid advancement of humanity into the new Space Age that our generations are not just lucky to be the witness of but have a significantly larger opportunity to be a part of. What a time to be alive!
What a time for Behnken and Hurley, both experienced astronauts, being with NASA since 2000. Their last flights from US soil to space were with the Space Shuttle program before it was retired 9 years ago. And now, they have entered a new era in a brand-new spaceship that has a ‘new car smell’ and flies ‘totally different’ than any former NASA shuttle, while donning a brand-new spacesuit design. Next step in this mission is to bring them home safely. We wish them all the best in their future endeavours!