SpaceX put people into orbit for the first time in its most important mission in 18 years
- On Saturday night SpaceX successfully launched into orbit its first human passengers: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
- The astronauts lifted off at 21:22 SA time while riding inside Crew Dragon, a new privately developed spaceship that Elon Musk's rocket company made in part for NASA.
- However, the Demo-2 mission is a test flight that's far from over. Behnken and Hurley could spend up to 110 days in space.
- Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut who worked on SpaceX's Dragon vehicles, said success for Demo-2 could spark a golden age of commercial spaceflight.
- Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.
Amid the threat of rain and lightning on Saturday, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets heaved itself off the ground at 21:22 South African time with a thunderous roar of flames, smoke, and dust.
Then, about 12 minutes later, a relatively small payload popped off the top of the 23-story launcher, slipping the spacecraft into low-Earth orbit.
However, this payload is unlike anything the world has seen: a privately developed commercial spaceship called Crew Dragon, which is carrying SpaceX's first human beings - NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
Shortly before their historic crewed space launch, the first from American soil since July 2011, the men shared ceremonious words from SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship over the radio.
"It is absolutely an honour to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back in the launch business," Hurley said, minutes before liftoff.
The flight not only resurrects American crewed spaceflight for NASA, but also opens a door for SpaceX to help commercialise space.
The NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, became emotional while delivering remarks after the crew reached orbit.
"I'm breathing a sigh of relief, but I will also tell you I'm not going to celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely," Bridenstine said, adding: "I've heard that rumble before, but it's a whole different feeling when it's your team on top of that rocket."
Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, expressed his enthusiasm during the first launch attempt at the launch on Wednesday: "This is a dream come true for me and everyone else at SpaceX."
"I didn't even dream that this would come true."
Poor weather threatened to delay the mission a second time, as clouds crowded the Florida skies and teased rocket-threatening lightning. A rain shower briefly soaked the rocket.
Similar conditions forced NASA and SpaceX to scrub their first launch attempt just 17 before liftoff on Wednesday, since the Falcon 9 rocket could trigger lightning strikes from electrically charged clouds.
Though the historic mission is on its way, the hard part is not over for the two men, SpaceX, or NASA - a partner that has invested more than $3.14 billion to foster the system's development.
Launching rockets is something SpaceX excels at, with now 86 successful liftoffs under its belt. Flying crewed space capsules and keeping the passengers alive is another matter.
To prove to NASA and the rest of the world it can be done, the astronauts will catch up to the International Space Station, where they will dock the new spaceship for about 110 days before returning home.
The stakes are enormous, with the success of the mission - marked by a safe landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida - bound to shape the future of SpaceX, NASA, and human spaceflight in general.
A 110-day spaceflight to tame the Dragon
Within a day of launch, the ship will pull up to the International Space Station (ISS): SpaceX and NASA's ultimate, football field-size destination in orbit. Behnken and Hurley will try their hand at the manual docking controls before turning the automated system back on.
If the procedure goes well, NASA says the ship should berth on Sunday at 16:27 South African and the hatches between the ship and the space station should open around 18:45. The three-person crew of the station's Expedition 63, commanded by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, will be waiting to greet Behnken and Hurley.
Although the Crew Dragon's final version is designed to stay in space for nearly seven months, NASA and SpaceX said this particular ship could stay up to 110 days. That shelf life, they said, is determined by the ship's solar panels; over time, a corrosive form of oxygen high above Earth will degrade the panels.
"That schedule is a little bit in flux," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of mission assurance, said during a May 25 briefing. "NASA will tell us when we're ready to go."
Before Behnken and Hurley leave the ISS, though, they'll grab a historic memento: an American flag flown on the first space shuttle mission and left by the crew of NASA's 135th and final space shuttle flight, of which Hurley was a member.
President Barack Obama in July 2011 called it a game of "capture-the-flag" for the first commercial spaceship crew to reach the station.
That competition is now down to SpaceX and Boeing, which is slated for a crewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner spaceship in early 2021.
"We definitely feel like we're in the lead to make it to the International Space Station and retrieve the flag that STS-135 left behind. But we aren't really focused on who's going to win and who's going to lose," Behnken told reporters on May 1.
He added: "We're really focused on making sure that we technically get into space and get this vehicle checked out and accomplish the ultimate mission, which isn't winning against Boeing: It's providing this capability to the International Space Station so that we can start rotating crews from American soil."
Elon Musk is most worried about the landing of Crew Dragon
When the astronauts are ready to return, they'll climb back into Crew Dragon, put on their spacesuits, and undock from the space station. Then they'll get into position to blast off the spaceship's thrusters, allowing Earth's gravity to pull them back to the planet.
This reentry of the space capsule through Earth's atmosphere - aside from the threat posed by space debris - is the "biggest concern" for Musk, he told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week.
His worry concerning the new spaceship was the capsule's asymmetric design, which is driven by its emergency escape system. While screaming back to Earth at 25 times the speed of sound, the capsule's heat shield will deflect and absorb the energy of superheated plasma - but the forces of atmospheric reentry have a slim chance of causing catastrophic issues, Musk said.
"If you rotate too much, then you could potentially catch the plasma in the super Draco escape thruster pods," Musk said, adding this could overheat parts of the ship or cause it to lose control (by wobbling). "We've looked at this six ways to Sunday, so it's not that I think this will fail. It's just that I worry a bit that it is asymmetric on the backshell."
After slowing down due to drag, Crew Dragon is supposed to open its parachutes and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, where recovery boats will pick up the astronauts. Koenigsmann told Business Insider that is a concern, since the parachute packing can't really be tested before launch, but that the risk of failure is very low due to scores of tests performed by SpaceX.
In all likelihood, according to NASA and SpaceX's risk estimates, the mission has more than a 98% chance of success and even higher odds of keeping Behnken and Hurley safe. NASA estimated the chance SpaceX might lose the spaceship during the landing phase to be less than 1 in 500.
The 'beginning of a golden age of commercial spaceflight'
Assuming all goes well from start to finish with the Demo-2 mission, experts believe the mission could represent a bold new era for human spaceflight.
Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who worked for many years on SpaceX's cargo and crewed spaceship programs, said Crew Dragon and Demo-2 could signal major progress within the spaceflight industry.
For one, he said, it'd be "the ultimate validation" of NASA's decision to split roughly $8 billion between SpaceX and Boeing and have the companies develop their own spacecraft and, in the end, privately own and operate them. That model contrasts with the agency's Orion spaceship and Space Launch System rocket programs, which NASA will own and operate but have amounted to tens of billions of dollars in American taxpayer costs without a single test launch.
"I think that the combination of those two things - the performance plus the cost savings - would be an incredible validation and endorsement of this whole approach," Reisman said.
He added that the next stage will be the flights of private astronauts (or "spaceflight participants" in NASA parlance) to the space station. To that effect, NASA recently streamlined the ability of companies to fly citizens to the laboratory and foster commercial activities - even including the filming of action movies.
Put together, he said success for Demo-2 would represent "the beginning of a golden age of commercial spaceflight."
"We would be within a year of flying ordinary citizens in space, and that will be hugely transformative," he added.
Reisman says that at first only the wealthy and well-connected will have access to space. But he added that the early days of commercial aviation looked very similar, with passengers spending inordinate sums to fly in biplanes while wearing tuxedos because it was such a rare event.
"That's where we're at with space travel today, we're in the very beginning stages," he said. "We have to look forward to the day when we have Southwest and JetBlue."
"The day will come when when everybody that wants to go to space will, for the most part, be able to afford to go," Reisman said.
SpaceX is hard at work on a follow-up crewed launch called Starship, which Musk hopes can reduce the cost of access to space by 1,000-fold or more.
He hopes to launch a prototype on a short "hop" at the company's burgeoning development site in South Texas in the coming weeks. SpaceX is working with NASA to possibly land the vehicle on the moon in 2024. Musk also wants to begin crewed launches in the mid-2020s and, perhaps in the 2030s, start building permanent cities on Mars.
SpaceX also hopes its Starship project will dramatically speed up international travel from days to minutes with regular point-to-point flights at hypersonic speeds.
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