In a landmark moment for the commercial space industry, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have travelled to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a spacecraft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation.
Launched aboard a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space centre at 3.22pm on Saturday 30th May, the SpaceX Crew Dragon docked with the ISS on Sunday morning after a journey that saw it orbit the Earth at speeds of up 17,500mph.
The mission marks the first time that NASA astronauts have launched from US soil aboard a commercially built spacecraft and is the first manned launch from the US for almost a decade.
Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. It also marks the first manned spaceflight test of Crew Dragon and paves the way for the spacecraft’s certification for regular crewed flights to the station.
The mission has been carried out as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is seeing the agency working with SpaceX and Boeing to design, build, test and operate safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation systems to low-Earth orbit.
During the flight, SpaceX controlled the launch of the rocket from the former space shuttle control room at Kennedy, whilst Crew Dragon was commanded from the SpaceX mission control centre in Hawthorne, California.
Whilst en route to the station, Behnken and Hurley took control of the spacecraft for manual flight tests, demonstrating their ability to control the spacecraft should an issue with its automated system arise.
At the conclusion of the mission, Behnken and Hurley will board Crew Dragon, which will then autonomously undock, depart the space station, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Upon splashdown off Florida’s Atlantic coast, the crew will be picked up by the SpaceX recovery ship and returned to the dock at Cape Canaveral.
“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” said Elon Musk, chief engineer at SpaceX. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. 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.”