It’s no longer the same as hopping on a commuter flight from New York to Washington or renting a car from Avis, but the launch of four astronauts Sunday to the International Space Station in a capsule built by SpaceX was an important step toward making space travel commonplace.
In the future, instead of relying on government-run spacecraft, NASA astronauts and anyone else with enough cash will be able to purchase a ticket on a commercial rocket.
NASA has classified Sunday night’s launch as the first operational flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft built and managed by SpaceX, the rocket company that Elon Musk started. The four astronauts on board – three from NASA and one from the Japan Space Agency – left Earth from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Dragon crew took two astronauts – Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley – to the space station in May, but that was a test flight to clear remaining vulnerabilities in the systems.
The four astronauts on this flight are Michael S Hopkins, Shannon Walker, Victor J. Glover of NASA, and Japanese astronaut Soishi Noguchi.
NASA and SpaceX last week completed the certification process, which provides the space agency’s seal of approval that SpaceX has met the specifications for regularly taking NASA astronauts into orbit. This launch, known as Crew-1, is a regularly scheduled flight to take four crew members for six months on the space station.
“It marks the end of the system development phase,” said Phil McAllister, NASA’s commercial spaceflight development director, in a telephone interview on Thursday. “For the first time in history, there is a commercial capacity from a private sector entity to safely and reliably move people into space.”
Despite the bad weather – forecasts gave only a 50-50 chance for favorable conditions on the launch pad – the sky remained clear enough. At 7:27 PM ET, the Falcon 9’s nine engines shot to life and lit the night sky as the rocket blasted over the Atlantic Ocean.
After withdrawing from the second stage, which continued to rotate, the Falcon 9 booster turned around and landed on a floating platform. Now, of course, SpaceX takes the boosters back and reuses them. This same rocket stage will be used to launch the next quadruple of astronauts to the space station next spring.
The Crew Dragon, called Resilience, is set to dock on Monday at around 11 p.m. after a 27.5-hour flight as the capsule catches up with the space station, which is traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour.
When Mr. Glover arrives, he will become the first black astronaut to serve as a member of the station crew in the 20 years that people have lived on board the International Space Station. Other black astronauts were previously on the space station, but they were there for a short time during the space shuttle missions that helped assemble the orbital position.
When asked during a news conference on Monday about his thoughts on making history, Mr. Glover humbly nodded the importance.
“It is something to celebrate once we get it done, and it is an honor to be in this position and to be part of this wonderful and experienced staff,” He said. “And I look forward to getting up there and doing my best to make sure, you know, that we are worthy of all the work that has been put into preparing us for this mission. You know, unlike elections – that happened in the past or were lagging in the past – this job is still ahead of me. So, let’s get there, and I’ll talk to you after I get on the plane. ”
As he said last week in an interview with Christian Chronicle, A publication of the Churches of Christ, that the teacher was “bittersweet.”
“I had some great colleagues before me who could really do that, and there are some wonderful people who will go after me,” said Mr. Glover. “I hope it has already been done, but I’m trying not to draw too much attention to it.”
Charles F. Bolden, Jr., who served as NASA Director under President Barack Obama, said that while Mr. Glover was making history, he should not feel the burden.
“Many of us have had the opportunity to try to talk to him regularly and try to help calm him down and help him understand that he is not carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders,” said Mr. Bolden, who is also black. He spent nearly 700 hours in space as a NASA astronaut. “He shouldn’t feel extraordinary responsibility because he’s black. He should just go be another crew member and have a good time.”
On a Sunday afternoon, while the astronauts were preparing for launch, they were visited by Jim Bridenstein, current NASA Administrator, and Gwen Shotwell, SpaceX’s head and chief operating officer.
For Mr Bridenstine, this was the last astronaut launch he saw as a NASA captain. In an interview Last week with Aviation Week magazineMr. Bridenstein said he would not remain in his current position after the inauguration, even if requested by the incoming Biden administration.
SpaceX CEO Musk kept out of sight, after saying he “probably” had a “moderate case” of Covid-19.
The four astronauts who set off on Sunday will be joined by three others already on the space station: Kate Robins from NASA and two Russians, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kudverchekov.
They’ll do what astronauts have been doing for the past two decades on the space station: Supervising scientific experimentsPerform maintenance tasks and speak to students on the ground.
Astronauts, for example, will collect their own biological samples to help scientists on Earth study how dietary changes affect the body. They will also grow radishes, which is the latest experiment to explore whether food can be grown in space. (Red lettuce and mizuna green mustard Among the previous foods studied by astronauts.) They will also test whether fungi can break down asteroid rocks and aid in the extraction of beneficial minerals – a scientific precursor to extraterrestrial mining operations, and follow A similar successful experiment used bacteria.
With Crew Dragon entering operational status, the space station’s crew can be increased to seven. After the retirement of the space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft was the only means for astronauts to travel to and from the space station. The Soyuz has only three seats, and it also functions as an emergency lifeboat – with two Soyuz spacecraft moored at the station, the maximum crew size was six.
But at the moment, the space station contains places where only six astronauts sleep, not seven. “We are currently in a short crew station aboard the station,” Mr. Hopkins said during a press conference on Monday.
SpaceX crew captain Mr. Hopkins said he might sleep in Crew Dragon instead.
Catherine J. Wu in the report.