In the future, instead of relying on spacecraft built by NASA or other governments, NASA astronauts and anyone else with enough money can by a ticket on a commercial rocket.
“This is truly a commercial launch vehicle,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said during a post-launch news conference, “and we’re grateful to our partners at SpaceX for providing it.” NASA designated Sunday night’s launch as the first operational flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft built and operated by SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk. The four astronauts aboard — three from NASA, one from JAXA, the Japanese space agency — left Earth from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A Crew Dragon took two astronauts — Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley — to the space station in May, but that was a test flight to shake out remaining glitches in the systems. The four astronauts on this flight are Michael S. Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor J. Glover of NASA and Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut. NASA and SpaceX last week completed the certification process, which provides the space agency’s seal of approval that SpaceX has met the specifications set out for regularly taking NASA astronauts to orbit. This launch, known as Crew-1, is a regularly scheduled trip to take four crew members for a six-month stay at the space station.
“It marks the end of the development phase of the system,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said in a telephone interview with reporters on Thursday. “For the first time in history, there is a commercial capability from a private sector entity to safely and reliably transport people to space.”
Despite iffy weather — forecasts gave only a 50-50 chance of favourable conditions at the launchpad — the skies remained clear enough. At 7:27 p.m. Eastern time, the nine engines of the Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and brightened the night sky as the rocket arced over the Atlantic Ocean. After dropping away from the second stage, which continued to orbit, the Falcon 9 booster turned around and landed on a floating platform. SpaceX now, as a matter of course, recovers and reuses the boosters. This same rocket stage will be used to launch the next quartet of astronauts to the space station next spring. The Crew Dragon, named Resilience, is scheduled to dock on Monday at about 11 p.m. after a 27.5 hour trip as the capsule caught up with space station, which is traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour.
When Glover arrives, he will become he first Black astronaut to serve as a member of the station’s crew in the 20-some years that people have been living aboard the International Space Station. Other Black astronauts have previously been aboard the space station, but they were there for briefer stays during space shuttle missions that helped assemble the orbiting outpost. When asked during a news conference on Monday about his thoughts on making history, Glover modestly nodded to the significance. “It is something to be celebrated once we accomplish it, and I am honoured to be in this position and to be a part of this great and experienced crew,” he said.
Kenneth Chang is a journalist with NYT© 2020
The New York Times