- SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, has completed the first flight of its new spaceship designed to fly people.
- The ship, called Crew Dragon, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida on Friday following a six-day mission in space.
- Crew Dragon is designed to taxi NASA’s astronauts to and from orbit, but this experimental mission, called Demo-1, carried only cargo and a crash-test dummy.
- The administrator of NASA called Demo-1 “an amazing achievement in American history.”
- Data recorded by Crew Dragon will be used to improve the ship’s design. If all goes well, SpaceX may fly its first astronauts as early as July.
While many Americans commuted to work on Friday morning, the first commercial spaceship designed to carry people screamed back to planet Earth at hypersonic speeds.
The 14,000-pound vehicle, which is made by SpaceX and called Crew Dragon, is designed to fly up to seven NASA astronauts to and from orbit. The spaceship launched last Saturday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, then linked up to the International Space Station for five days. Crew Dragon departed early Friday, ultimately splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean around 8:45 a.m. ET.
“Dragon has returned to planet Earth; it is now back home,” a SpaceX commentator said during a live broadcast of the landing.
But NASA nonetheless heralded the Demo-1 as a historic mission. That’s because the agency is desperate to restore its ability to launch astronauts after nearly eight years of relying solely on Russian spacecraft.
“This is an amazing achievement in American history,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said during the broadcast after landing. He described it as “the dawn of a new era in American human spaceflight, and really in spaceflight for the entire world.”
As SpaceX also pointed out during a live broadcast, the human-rated spacecraft’s splashdown was the first in nearly 50 years, since NASA’s Apollo 9 mission on March 13, 1969.
Barack Obama, who was president during the majority of Crew Dragon’s development, congratulated SpaceX on the landing.
“The Crew Dragon’s been on quite a ride since I last saw it – congrats to @NASA and @SpaceX on a successful return!” Obama tweeted on Friday.
While Crew Dragon was docked at the ISS, the space station’s three-person crew did work in the ship, then sent the dummy back along with scientific samples and other research results.
Now that the vehicle is back on Earth and due to port sometime on Saturday, Musk’s company appears poised to launch its first human passengers. If all goes as planned, the astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly the first Crew Dragon mission with people, Demo-2, as soon as July.
Why NASA desperately needs an American commercial spaceship
Demo-1 is part of Commercial Crew Program, a roughly $US8 billion effort to resurrect NASA’s ability to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, something NASA has not been able to do since the final space shuttle mission, in July 2011.
Commercial Crew started under President George W. Bush but formally kicked off in 2010. Obama said in his tweet that his administration invested in the program “to strengthen the U.S. space program for the long haul,” adding that “it’s great to see that happening.”
NASA retired its shuttle fleet at the behest of lawmakers and agency leaders who had concerns about its safety and cost. With the losses of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, 14 astronauts died. And according to estimates of total launch and development costs, each mission cost taxpayers roughly $US1.5 billion.
Looking to keep costs of accessing the space station down, the program tapped private companies for help. Out of dozens, SpaceX and Boeing came out on top: SpaceX earned a $US2.6 billion contract to develop Crew Dragon and launch six operational missions, while Boeing got $US4.2 billion to create its CST-100 Starliner spaceship, which may rocket to orbit for the first time in April.
“Just like we reuse aeroplanes, there’s going to come a day where we’re reusing rockets and spaceflight is going to become more routine,” Bridenstine said after Crew Dragon’s landing. “We’re not there yet – we have a long way to go. But this is an amazing achievement in this path in really a sustainable return to the moon.”
The need for Crew Dragon and Starliner has only increased in recent years, as NASA’s arrangement with Russia to launch US astronauts in Soyuz spaceships has become increasingly fraught. Russia has nearly quadrupled its prices for NASA over a decade. In 2008, a single round-trip flight for a NASA astronaut cost about $US22 million; by 2018, that price had soared to about $US81 million.
And despite about half a century of mostly flawless Soyuz launches, reliability and safety are now an increasing area of concern.
In August, a Soyuz began leaking air into space while attached to the space station. A small hole was found and investigated by cosmonauts. Russian authorities think the hole came from a manufacturing accident with a drill and was hastily covered up.
‘Welcome to the new era in spaceflight’
SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission racked up a list of firsts for the company, NASA, and spaceflight in general.
Crew Dragon’s launch last Saturday marked the first flight of an orbit-class commercial spaceship.
“Tonight was a big night for the United States of America, a great night for NASA,” Bridenstine said during a post-launch press conference. “But what today really represents is a new era in spaceflight.”
About 27 hours later, Crew Dragon became the first commercial ship to autonomously pull up to and dock with the football-field-size space station. SpaceX’s vehicle connected to the station’s Node 2, where NASA’s space-shuttle orbiters used to attach.
The space station’s three-person Expedition 58 crew opened the hatch, floated inside Crew Dragon, and held a greeting ceremony for the ship.
“On behalf of Ripley, little Earth, myself, and our crew, welcome to the Crew Dragon,” Anne McClain, a NASA astronaut, said from inside the spaceship. “These amazing feats show us not how easy our mission is, but how capable we are of doing hard things. Welcome to the new era in spaceflight.”
David Saint-Jacques, a Canadian astronaut and fellow crew member, called the docking “a beautiful thing to see,” adding, “This is a good day, a first day of a new era for the next generation of space explorers.”
Oleg Kononenko, a Russian crew member and the commander of the ISS, said Crew Dragon represented “a historic step” for humans to move “beyond low-Earth orbit to the moon, and Mars, and the future.”
Crew Dragon undocked at 2:31 a.m. on Friday and orbited Earth for more than five hours before reaching the right position to fire its engines. Around 7:50 a.m., those engines slowed the ship, allowing it to fall from the sky.
The spaceship reached hypersonic speeds of nearly 20,000 mph (about 25 times the speed of sound) in the planet’s thin outer atmosphere. A heat shield protected the ship from the intensity of atmospheric reentry.
Once it slowed to hundreds of miles per hour, the vehicle deployed two drogue parachutes, followed by four main parachutes.
After the splashdown, SpaceX crews raced out to meet the ship bobbing in the Atlantic.
“Not only did she fly and go to the space station and do everything she was supposed to do, but we brought her home safe and sound, landing her in the Atlantic – just amazing,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said during NASA’s broadcast on Friday. “I can’t believe how well the whole mission has gone.”
What’s next for SpaceX, NASA, and Crew Dragon
Once Crew Dragon is ferried back to port, the vehicle will be unpacked and its data downloaded. That information will then get modelled by computers, and the vehicle’s performance will be scrutinised.
NASA said information gathered by sensors on Ripley, the crash-test dummy, would go a long way in demonstrating Crew Dragon’s core requirement: safety.
“We’ve done tons of water-landing testing, parachute testing – all of these individual pieces. But actually having a reentry with Ripley in the seat, in the position, is critical,” Kathryn Lueders, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, previously told Business Insider. “We’ve instrumented the crap out of this vehicle.”
NASA expects to make final tweaks to the ship before any astronauts ride inside.
“I guarantee everything will not work exactly right, and that’s cool – that’s exactly what we want to do,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said before Crew Dragon’s launch. “We want to maximise our learning so we can get this stuff ready, so when we put crew on, we’re ready to go do a real crew mission.”
Gerstenmaier added that Demo-1 is “an absolutely critical first step” toward “eventually returning crewed launch capability back here to the US.”
Next up for the Crew Dragon capsule will be an in-flight abort test, most likely sometime in June. The experimental flight will put the spaceship on a Falcon 9 rocket and, about a minute after lifting off – when aerodynamic forces are at their strongest and most dangerous – attempt to safely jettison the ship away from its launcher. The rocket is not expected to survive the emergency test, but the capsule must.
“These are all capabilities that are leading to a day where we are launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said.
After that abort test, Musk and his aerospace company would have human passengers – Behnken and Hurley – to worry about.
“I expect it will be extremely stressful,” Musk said. “But doing this test flight, I think it goes a long way towards feeling good about the flight with Bob and Doug.”
Behnken, a two-time spaceflight veteran, said on Friday that he was looking forward to witnessing sunrises and sunsets from space again.
“They’re just remarkable from on orbit. Not quite the same as they are on the ground,” Behnken said. “You can’t get that anyplace else.”
This story has been updated with new information.
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