SpaceX successfully launched its second crew of astronauts to orbit the night aboard the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight, called Crew-1, marks Crew Dragon’s first operational mission, as SpaceX begins a new era of regularly sending people to and from the International Space Station for NASA.
Crew Dragon takes off at 7:27 p.m. ET aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Flying in the capsule are three NASA astronauts — Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker — and Soichi Noguchi, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. Now in orbit, the crew will spend over the next day in space before anchoring with the ISS on Monday at around 11 p.m. ET. Crew Dragon had designed to automatically dock at the space station without requiring input from the crew on board.
After takeoff, the Falcon 9 booster successfully landed on the drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” in the Atlantic Ocean. The plan is for the booster to re-used on SpaceX’s next crewed mission, Crew-2.
Although this is SpaceX’s second crewed flight into space, it is the first real long-duration mission of the new SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Crew Dragon’s first crew flight into space in May lasted only two months from start to finish. The flight was a test — meant to show that the vehicle can safely transport people to the space station and bring them back home. It worked, and now the Crew Dragon is the first vehicle NASA certified to carry humans since the Space Shuttle — and the first private spacecraft to receive that designation.
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This particular Crew Dragon capsule is named Resilience. Minutes before launch, Hopkins addressed the astronauts’ colleagues 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 said. “Now, it’s time for us to do our part.”
Moving forward, crewed flights of the Crew Dragon will look a lot like the one that launched today. A few times a year, the capsule will launch to the ISS, carrying a mix of NASA astronauts and astronauts from other international space programs partnered with the United States. That routine launch schedule hoped for since 2014, when NASA tasked SpaceX with creating a vehicle that could ferry astronauts to and from the space station every six months, as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Now the company is finally making good on that promise.
Despite reaching this important milestone, some NASA officials are hesitant to describe the Crew Dragon as fully operational just yet. The losses of two Space Shuttles — Challenger and Columbia — still weigh on the agency, and NASA engineers don’t want to get into the mindset that their work is finished. “I think what makes us nervous at NASA is that we don’t want to ever just declare victory and say we were done learning and get complacent,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, said during a press briefing with reporters ahead of the flight. “I think there’s a feeling that if we start just referring to these as operational that we won’t stay hungry — we won’t remain vigilant.”
Today’s flight is still a critical moment for NASA, as it ensures that the space agency has a way of launching its own astronauts to the International Space Station from the US. After the Space Shuttle’s last flight took place in 2011, NASA had to rely on Russia to send the agency’s astronauts to the ISS. NASA has to pay about $80 million per seat for the Russian Soyuz rocket. Now, NASA has another option to send its astronauts into space with Crew Dragon, where seats cost roughly as low as $55 million, according to a government audit.
Soon, NASA could have even more options for flying its astronauts, as SpaceX is just one of two companies challenged with creating a taxi for people to travel to the space station. The other company, Boeing, has been developing its own capsule called the CST-100 Starliner. That vehicle is still in development after its first uncrewed flight to the International Space Station didn’t go exactly to plan. During a test last year, the Starliner suffered multiple software glitches, preventing the capsule from reaching the space station and prompting Boeing to bring the vehicle back to Earth early. The company plans to do a second uncrewed flight test sometime early next year.
That means SpaceX will be NASA’s primary launch provider for now, with Crew Dragon helping increase the number of people living on the ISS. During the Soyuz era, the space station usually housed a crew of six for months, as the Soyuz capsule could only carry three crew members into space. But with four seats in Crew Dragon, the space station will soon have seven members staying on board for the first time. The crew of four in Crew Dragon will meet NASA astronauts Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who arrive at the ISS in Soyuz in October. The number of people was so large that astronaut Mike Hopkins noted that he might have to sleep in Dragon Crew for a while because there weren’t enough beds for everyone in it.
With so many astronauts on board, the crew expects to get a lot done during their six-month stay. “It’s going to be exciting to see how much work we’re going to be able to get done where we’re there,” Hopkins said during an interview ahead of the flight, adding that there wasn’t a lot of free time in their schedule during the first week of their stay. “So, I think they’re going to keep us pretty busy.”