SpaceX has officially made history with the first successful launch of humans into orbit by a private company. The Crew Dragon capsule, carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, safely reached orbit 12 minutes into the launch and is now on its way to the International Space Station. It was the first crewed launch from American soil in almost nine years following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. The joint NASA-SpaceX collaboration means the US no longer has to rely on Russian Soyuz launches to move astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
As part of the launch, the first stage of the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket successfully landed on the company’s drone ship, appropriately named Of Course I Still Love You. At the 12-minute mark, the Dragon capsule separated from the second stage as it reached orbiting altitude.
Today’s launch took place on pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center after an aborted attempt this past Wednesday due to unfavorable weather conditions. Contrary to the usual NASA procedure, SpaceX fueled up the Falcon 9 after the two astronauts had already boarded the Dragon. While the mission is completely automated, both Behnken and Hurley retain the ability to manually control the capsule and will in fact do so as part of the flight, which SpaceX initially didn’t want to do.
The astronauts will perform a variety of tasks aboard the Crew Dragon as part of the demo mission in addition to the manual-control demonstration. Then, at about 10:30 AM Sunday eastern time, Hurley and Behnken will arrive at the International Space Station, where the Crew Dragon will engage its new automated docking system.
After a short stay on the ISS (the exact length of which has not yet been determined), the two astronauts will return to Earth in the Dragon and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean with parachutes. That will be the first time astronauts will have landed this way since 1975, before the days of the Space Shuttle program. While the Crew Dragon capsule does have its own SuperDraco engines, both as backup propulsion and as a launch-abort system, they won’t be used in this mission. Future landings with the engines may well be in the cards, though.
Following a successful SpaceX Demo-2 mission, NASA and SpaceX hope to use the Crew Dragon to send and return astronauts to the ISS on a regular basis.
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