SpaceX launches historic test flight of new astronaut capsule
SpaceX successfully launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft from eastern Florida early Saturday on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Center, an inaugural demo flight that paves the way for a return to American manned space travel.
“LIFTOFF! The next big leap in a new chapter of U.S. human spaceflight systems has left the pad,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said on Twitter after the 2.49 am launch of the capsule - on board the Falcon 9 rocket - was shown via livestream.
The Crew Dragon capsule, an improved version of the Dragon cargo module, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A on Merritt Island, Florida, a launch site that was formerly used for the Apollo program’s lunar missions.
It is to be docked at the ISS for a week before returning to Earth.
"@SpaceX’s #CrewDragon has separated from its rocket as the spacecraft continues to head to the @Space_Station on its debut flight,” NASA said in a subsequent tweet.
The goal of SpaceX’s round-trip Demo Mission-1 (DM-1) is to demonstrate “most of the capabilities of their crew transportation system,” NASA said prior to the launch.
These include operation of the avionics system and docking system and performance of the Guidance, Navigation and Control systems of the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon through ascent, on-orbit and entry, it added.
SpaceX, which was awarded a $2.6 billion “space-taxi” contract by NASA in 2014, also is carrying supplies to astronauts stationed at the ISS as part of this initial, unmanned Crew Dragon phase.
Since NASA retired its space-shuttle fleet in 2011, the United States has had to rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to send astronauts to the ISS, paying Moscow more than $80 million per seat.
This awkward situation for a space power could change if the DM-1 is a success, since NASA may then approve regular use of the new crew transportation system.
That was the message delivered by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after the early Saturday launch.
“Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence, getting us closer to once again flying American Astronauts on American rockets from American soil. Congratulations to the @SpaceX and @NASA teams for this major milestone in our nation’s history,” he wrote on Twitter.
A “test dummy” dressed as an astronaut is being carried inside the Crew Dragon capsule, similar to one that was seated on a Tesla Roadster during the maiden mission of SpaceX’s huge Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018.
SpaceX’s chief executive officer, South African-born billionaire Elon Musk, also is CEO of Tesla, a maker of luxury electric vehicles.
Provided the DM-1 mission is a success, SpaceX will conduct a new uncrewed flight in April aimed at testing out the capsule’s emergency abort system.
SpaceX then plans to shuttle a pair of NASA astronauts this summer to the ISS for a two-week stay.