SpaceX’s astronaut launch marks a milestone for commercial spaceflight

It’s also the first mission to send humans into orbit from the U.S. since NASA stopped in 2011

Falcon 9 launch

In the first crewed launch of a spacecraft from the United States since the shuttle program ended in 2011, two NASA astronauts lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on May 30.


For the first time, humans are hurtling into Earth’s orbit on a commercial rocket.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launched at 3:22 p.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 30, to take U.S. astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS).

“So rises a new era of American spaceflight, and with it the ambitions of a new generation continuing the dream,” said NASA commentator Dan Huot shortly after launch.

Called Demo-2, the May 30 launch and flight will be the ultimate test of the spacecraft’s systems and its ability to ferry a crew into orbit. The Falcon 9 rocket landed safely on a floating platform after carrying the astronauts to space.

The launch was originally scheduled for May 27, but was scrubbed due to bad weather less than 17 minutes before lift-off time. This time, the weather cooperated.

Astronauts have not launched to orbit from the United States since 2011, when NASA’s space shuttle program ended (SN: 6/3/11). Since then, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft have been the only way for astronauts of any nationality to reach the ISS. (The Chinese space agency has its own rockets and crew vehicles, and had its own space station for a time, but is not a partner in the ISS.)

“It is absolutely our honor to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back into the launch business,” said Hurley just before launch.

The launch marks an important transition in crewed space travel for NASA, shifting the government space agency from having complete control over U.S. launches to being just another customer of a private space flight company. That shift should end the U.S. space agency’s reliance on Russia, though, and free NASA to focus on more complicated missions, such as sending humans to the moon and Mars.

“The reason you have NASA is to push the envelope, do things at the frontier,” says astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “Low-Earth orbit and the space station are no longer the frontier. So you just hire a trucking company.”

In 2014, NASA partnered with private companies SpaceX and Boeing to develop new flight technology to bring astronauts into orbit and back. SpaceX is also working on a heavy lift rocket that may eventually be capable of taking humans to Mars (SN: 2/6/18).

In some ways, this shift is a natural evolution, McDowell says. NASA has hired private companies, including SpaceX, to launch satellites for years, and private manufacturing has been part of spacecraft development since the 1950s. But human space exploration has higher stakes.

“It has a much higher public profile, and much worse consequences, if things go wrong. So NASA has been understandably reluctant to take its hands off the wheel,” McDowell says. “It has been a big attitude shift within NASA to get this far. But I think it is the right time to do it.”

NASA provided funding and technical oversight to SpaceX in the development of the Crew Dragon. “What we’re doing is unlike anything we’ve done before,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a NASA TV broadcast May 27. “We are not purchasing, owning and operating the hardware, we’re turning to commercial industry…. We’re really revolutionizing how we do spaceflight.”

Financially, this was a good deal for the agency, according to an analysis by the Planetary Society published May 19. NASA’s portion of the Crew Dragon development came to about $1.7 billion over the last nine years, far cheaper than every other crewed spacecraft project in the space agency’s history. For instance, NASA spent $2.7 billion (adjusted for inflation) developing the Mercury spacecraft, the first human spaceflight program in the United States, from 1959 to 1961. The development of the space shuttle program cost $24.7 billion.

Before the planned launch, SpaceX and NASA ran the Crew Dragon spacecraft through a battery of tests, especially of the thruster system. An accident involving that system destroyed an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft in April 2019, pushing back the planned launch schedule. That explosion was likely caused by a propellant leak.  

Preflight testing also included flight simulations for the astronauts and 27 tests of the parachute system, used to help the capsule carrying returning astronauts back to Earth set down safely. That’s fewer parachute tests than normal, NASA associate administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a May 22 news briefing. But he has “high confidence that they will function as we need them to when Bob and Doug return.”

Crew Dragon’s parachute test
On May 1, SpaceX tested the Crew Dragon’s parachutes. It was the 27th test of the system, which will help the capsule make a safe landing when it brings astronauts back from the space station. While this test was over land, SpaceX expects to bring the spacecraft down in the ocean.SpaceX

This mission has a neat resonance for the astronauts, who have both flown on two space shuttle missions — and especially for Hurley, who was on the final flight of the space shuttle in July of 2011.

“It’s a great honor to be part of this mission,” Hurley said in a May 1 news briefing. His excitement is tempered by a sense of responsibility. “You just want to be methodical about everything you do,” he said. “This is the first flight of a vehicle, and we want to make sure we’ve chased down everything we need to.”

Hurley and Behnken spent the two weeks before launch in quarantine to ensure that they don’t bring any infections or illnesses to the ISS, including the new coronavirus. That’s standard practice that was in place before the spread of COVID-19, says NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.

NASA adhered to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on infection control for the coronavirus before the astronauts went into quarantine, she adds. That included “cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, encouraging NASA team members who are sick to stay home and limiting contact with crew members.” The astronauts have also been tested at least twice for COVID-19.

NASA astronauts in a flight simulator
In March, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley (front) used a flight simulator to practice launching the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and docking it at the International Space Station.SpaceX

NASA maintains a pharmacy onboard the space station, and has plans in place to sequester astronauts from their crewmates if anyone does get sick. There are no plans to send coronavirus tests to the space station.

The coronavirus pandemic also means that the Kennedy Space Center is closed to the general public. But before the May 27 launch was scrubbed, crowds had gathered along nearby beaches and roads to watch the lift-off.

Once in orbit, the astronauts will test the spacecraft’s environmental control systems, the displays and the maneuvering thrusters. The spacecraft is designed to dock with the space station automatically, but the crew can take over manually if necessary.

If all goes to schedule, the astronauts will reach the space station on the morning of May 31. The mission won’t be considered over until the astronauts return in the same Crew Dragon capsule after a yet-to-be-determined amount of time, probably between one and three months.

Once the craft is certified to be safe and operational, Crew Dragons will carry up to four astronauts to the ISS at a time on NASA missions. NASA hopes that the new transportation will help boost human presence on the ISS, and continue research that can be done only in space.

For his part, Behnken is excited to be launching from the Florida coast again, which was routine when he and Hurley joined the NASA astronaut corps in 2000. “Generations of people, who maybe didn’t get a chance to see a space shuttle launch, getting a chance again to see human spaceflight from our own backyard, if you will, is pretty exciting to be a part of,” he said.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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