Over the weekend, SpaceX pulled off the first leg of a space mission that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine described as an "historic achievement."
On Saturday, Elon Musk's rocket company successfully launched Crew Dragon, the world's first commercial spaceship designed to ferry humans to and from space. The new vehicle then docked to the International Space Station (ISS).
Crew Dragon carried no people into space - just cargo and a female crash-test dummy named "Ripley." But the demonstration mission, called Demo-1, represents a turning point for the US. The last time an American rocket launched an American spaceship to the ISS was during NASA's final space shuttle mission in July 2011.
"Our sincere congrats to all earthlings who have enabled the opening of this next chapter in space exploration," Anne McClain, a NASA astronaut and Expedition 58 crew member on the space station, said on Sunday during a welcoming ceremony for Crew Dragon. "And congratulations to all nations, private space firms, and individuals who wake up every day driven by the magic of exploration. This day belongs to all of us."
Yet in pulling off the first major parts of the six-day mission (Crew Dragon is due back on Earth this Friday), Elon Musk's rocket company inadvertently caused a small problem on Earth. It wiped out inventories of a soccer-ball-size plush Earth doll.
That doll, which wears a look of surprise on its face, was launched into space inside Crew Dragon. The owners of the company that makes the toy, Celestial Buddies, were similarly taken aback.
"We apologise for our current lack of Earths," Jessie and Jon Silbert said in a message posted on their company's website. "We have never had one of our products launched into space before, and we were taken totally by surprise."
They added that their warehouse will be empty of the little Earths at least until the end of April.
On Saturday at 02:49 ET, Crew Dragon launched on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
About three hours before launch, Musk posted two images of the plush Earth doll. One showed the product up close, while the other showed the toy inside the Crew Dragon, a few seats away from Ripley the mannequin.
"Super high tech zero-g indicator added just before launch!" Musk tweeted.
The toy was attached to a seat by a long tether so that it could float around once Crew Dragon reached its Earth-orbiting speed of about 28,163km/h. Sure enough, camera feeds inside the space capsule broadcast footage on NASA TV showing the little Earth moving about once in orbit.
"On behalf of Ripley, little Earth, myself, and our crew, welcome to the Crew Dragon," McClain said. "These amazing feats show us not how easy our mission is, but how capable we are of doing hard things. Welcome to the new era in spaceflight."
She then spun the Earth toy with a gentle nudge.
Due to the high-profile nature of the mission - hundreds of thousands of people tuned in Saturday morning to watch it via webcast - countless people went looking for the Earth toy online. The toy sells for approximately R284.
Over the weekend, Celestial Buddies said on its website that it quickly sold out.
Below is a portion of the message that the Silberts posted:
At 02:49 EST on Saturday, March 2, 2019, SpaceX launched its Dragon Crew Rocket toward the International Space Station. On board were "Ripley" an anthropomorphic test device (aka test dummy) named for Sigourney Weaver's character in the movie "Alien," and Celestial Buddies' own Earth, which SpaceX founder Elon Musk dubbed a "super high tech zero-g indicator."
We at Celestial Buddies had no advance information about Earth's participation in the launch, although a sudden flurry of orders for Earth in the 48 hours prior to lift off had made us wonder if something was afoot. By the time the rocket left Cape Kennedy, however, our entire inventory of Earth had been completely sold out, with scores of orders still unfilled.
We apologise for our current lack of Earths...we have never had a product on backorder before...but we have never had one of our products launched into space before, and we were taken totally by surprise. Thus, our reorder will not be in our warehouse until the end of April.
By Monday, Amazon.com had sold out of its standard inventory as well, and secondary sellers were asking for R1,118.24 per doll.
Auctions of the toy also appeared on eBay, where sellers were marketing them as "SpaceX Plush Celestial Buddy Earth."
However, the little Earths are sold in gift shops at museums and science centers, among other physical locations. So if you're looking for a decently priced Earth toy before May, that'd be a good place to start.
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