SpaceX Sunday deposited two NASA astronauts on the International Space Station, about 19 hours after a seamless Saturday blastoff from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The mission is America’s first manned launch of astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil in almost a decade.
NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were ready to take control of the Space-X Dragon capsule as it approached the space station, but it wasn’t necessary as the craft automatically docked with the station 262 miles above the China-Mongolia border.
“Congratulations on a phenomenal accomplishment and welcome to the International Space Station,” SpaceX Mission Control said from its Hawthorne headquarters.
“Bravo on a magnificent moment in spaceflight history,” NASA’s Mission Control team radioed from Houston.
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy greeted the incoming crew by ringing a bell on the space station.
It was the first time a privately built and owned spacecraft carried astronauts to the orbiting lab in its nearly 20 years. NASA considers this the opening volley in a business revolution encircling Earth and eventually stretching to the moon and Mars.
The launch of the Crew Dragon capsule was originally planned for Wednesday, but bad weather in the flight path above Cape Canaveral in Florida caused the mission to be scrubbed 15 minutes before takeoff.
Weather conditions were better for Saturday’s 12:23 p.m. launch.
The launch was the first astronaut mission from American soil since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011. Traveling to the station has been done aboard Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
Behnken and Hurley are both veteran NASA astronauts.
Behnken — who has master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Caltech — is an Air Force colonel who served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions.
Hurley — a retired Marine Corps colonel — was a pilot on two space shuttle missions.
Earlier this week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine voiced excitement for the return of American space flight — and its ability to unite a nation that was plunged into economic turmoil by the coronavirus pandemic, and witnessed violent uprisings following the death of a black man during an attempted arrest by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said Tuesday.
“This space program that we have in this country unites people, period. It always has,” he said. “We look at the most divisive times in American history. We think about the Vietnam War, the 1960s, not just the war, but the protests.
“We think about the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests, (they were) challenging times, ,” Bridenstine said. “And here we are all these years later in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again.”
The flight is technically a demonstration mission, designed to show the capabilities of the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
The Crew Dragon’s two occupants will orbit Earth, with Hurley and Behnken testing flight capabilities of the spaceship, although it’s designed to essentially fly itself.
It still has not been determined how long the Crew Dragon — and Hurley and Behnken — will remain on the space station before returning to Earth.
Upon conclusion of the mission, Dragon will undock with the two astronauts aboard and depart the ISS.
After jettisoning the trunk and performing a de-orbit burn scheduled to last about 12 minutes, Dragon will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
Upon splashdown off Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Dragon and the astronauts will be recovered by SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery vessel and returned to Cape Canaveral.
The company noted that the Starship can make repeated trips between the Moon and lunar orbit.
In March, NASA selected SpaceX to ferry cargo between Earth and the Gateway orbiting spaceship.
SpaceX conducted an unmanned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019, sending the spacecraft to the International Space Station with an array of cargo and a mannequin playfully named Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” film franchise.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk refers to the space station trips as a stepping stone for bolder plans, most notably returning to the moon and ultimately flying crewed missions to Mars.
Ahead of Wednesday’s launch attempt, Musk expressed a slight bit of nervousness about the flight. But he said he was surprised his aerospace company has come so far.
“This is a dream come true, I think for me and everyone at SpaceX,” he said. “This is not something that I ever thought would actually happen. When starting SpaceX in 2002, I really did not think this day would occur.
“I expected a 90 percent chance we’d fail to even get to lower-Earth orbit with a small rocket. So if somebody told me in 2002 that I’d be standing here with the NASA administrator, meeting the astronauts and a spacecraft on launch pad 39A, the best pad in the world, it’s an honor to be there, I would have thought, man, … no way.”
NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard said this week the return of American flight capabilities to the space station is critical to future research.
“Why are we here? We’re here to expand the human condition for all mankind,” he said. “… Right now we’ve got one astronaut on the space station, and when we get the full complement back, we’re going to increase our research up there by 300 percent that’s about helping others. That’s why we exist.”
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