At 7:27 p.m. EST, Sunday, November 15, SpaceX and NASA launched Dragon’s first operational crew mission (Crew-1) to the International Space Station (ISS), marking another historic aeronautical adventure from the private company.
As the spacecraft soared into outer space, its occupants, astronauts; Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi bade farewell to the earth as their journey to the ISS began. The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is expected to dock with ISS on Monday at 11 pm ET.
The trip was moved from Saturday due to bad weather unleashed by hurricane Eta, after being postponed in September. Moving the launch to Sunday thus resulted in additional hours in orbit. Saturday’s launch would have meant a shorter trip of eight hours, 19 hours less from Sunday’s 27 hours journey.
Dragon is the only spacecraft currently flying capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth and is the first private spacecraft to humans to the space station.
In May, a trial version of the crew trip was conducted successfully with National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s astronauts, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken. The success of the test journey dubbed Crew Dragon Demo-2 back in May prepared the way for the landmark four-crew-member trip and future commercial travels to outer space.
The six-month trip is a fact-finding mission in which the Crew-1 team is to conduct all manner of experiments during their stay in the International Space Station. Their work will include research into how microgravity affects human heart tissue, and they will try to grow radishes in space to build on studies designed to figure out how food might be grown to sustain deep-space exploration missions.
The launch was nearly thrown into crisis after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk complained on Twitter he was having COVID-19 symptoms, and tests had been coming out negative and positive. NASA was forced to carry out a contact tracing effort to ensure no essential personnel for the launch was exposed.
As the astronauts dose through their way to the orbits in the autopilot capsule being watched over by NASA and SpaceX officials in Houston, Texas, and Hawthorne, California, the path to commercial space travel becomes clearer.
The big dream of operating commercial services, putting people on the moon and launching others to Mars becomes a few steps closer to reality.
“The future of human spaceflight is here. Thanks everyone for tuning in,” NASA tweeted after the launch of Crew-1.
Musk is working on a bigger space vehicle, the Starship, to accommodate more people in years to come. Part of the plan is to start commercial services with the Crew Dragon so that paying customers can be launched into space.
The Starship vehicle is expected to accommodate up to 100 passengers. SpaceX is planning to include it with two other vehicles in its Artemis program billed to commence Moon trips in 2024. As part of its contract with NASA, SpaceX will continue to deliver astronauts to the ISS following the success of the Crew-1 mission.
The Crew-1 launch has ushered in a new dawn that saves the United States a fortune. Before now, US astronauts could only travel to space through Russian Soyuz, and NASA has been paying Russia $90 million per seat over the past nine years.
The United States government has been working since 2004 to find an alternative to the space shuttle retired by President George Bush. The space shuttle flew for the last time in 2011, ever since then, no human has launched to orbit from the US soil until 2020.
The quest to fill the vacuum created by the retired spacecraft continued with subsequent US presidents. With the CCDev program, the scientific adventure to usher in a new era was born.
In 2010, under president Obama, a program called the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) began to replace the existing space shuttle going on retirement. The aim was to replace the shuttle with a privately built spacecraft. Two US companies, SpaceX and Boeing were contracted with $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion funding respectively to build a new spaceflight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.