Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) on Saturday launched the first astronauts into space from US soil for almost a decade.
In partnership with US space agency NASA, which has awarded it contracts and grants worth US$3.1bn over the years, the private company’s Falcon 9 rocket propelled the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the upper atmosphere after liftoff at 3:22pm from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
Once in space, the Crew Dragon, carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, separated and 19 hours later caught up and docked with the International Space Station, including testing the capsule's manual flight capabilities.
Part of the US space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, this flight is SpaceX’s final flight test before regular crewed flights begin to the ISS.
The scheduled launch last Wednesday was delayed due to stormy weather.
“It’s been a real honour to be a small part of this nine-year endeavour since the last time a United States spaceship has docked with the ISS,” said Hurley, who piloted the last NASA Space Shuttle mission in 2011.
Joshua Kutryk, a space station mission controller for NASA, said: “To our SpaceX colleagues, bravo on a magnificent moment in spaceflight history and on the start of a new journey that has changed the face of space travel in this new era of space transportation.”
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, a year before he started Tesla, said the program “is a turning point for America’s future in space exploration that lays the groundwork for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond”.
Said Musk: “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA, and by a number of other partners,” he said.
“You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”
Next steps: mission completion, moon and beyond
The Demo-2 test mission has accomplished several goals and will conclude some time within the next three months, with Hurley and Behnken undocking the Crew Dragon autonomously from the ISS before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere to splash down off Florida’s coast where they will be met at sea by SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery vessel.
“The Demo-2 mission will be the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station,” NASA said.
“This certification and regular operation of Crew Dragon will enable NASA to continue the important research and technology investigations taking place on board the station, which benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration of the moon and Mars starting with the agency’s Artemis program, which will land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface in 2024.”
SpaceX's missions to the moon and Mars suffered a setback last week, however, when a fourth Starship prototype rocket exploded in a giant fireball shortly after ignition of a static test.
The exploded prototype was one of a series designed to test the design for SpaceX’s huge Starship rockets that Musk aims to build for flights to the moon, Mars and deeper into space.
SpaceX had been planning to move onto low-altitude flight tests for this Starship in June after receiving a licence from the Federal Aviation Administration for “suborbital reusable launch vehicle missions” from its Boca Chica site in Texas.