Cosmic Space

SpaceX kicks off its first certified crew flight to orbit

This is not a test: For the first time, a commercial space venture has sent astronauts on their way to the International Space Station for a regularly scheduled crew rotation.

Today’s launch of three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, followed the pattern set in May for the company’s first-ever crewed space mission. Like that earlier journey, this one is being funded by NASA at an estimated price of $55 million per seat.

But unlike May’s outing, this mission isn’t considered a test flight. Instead, it’s the first crewed SpaceX launch to be conducted under the terms of a post-certification contract with NASA. SpaceX’s space transportation system was officially certified for regular flights with astronauts last week — just in time for the flight known as Crew-1.

It’s also the first crewed orbital launch to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight. “This is a big night for many of us, and it’s a big night for the FAA,” the agency’s administrator, Steve Dickson, said at a post-launch briefing.

In response to issues that arose during the crewed test flight, SpaceX beefed up the Dragon’s heat shield and fine-tuned the triggering system for the parachutes used for the spacecraft’s at-sea homecoming.

The first opportunity for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Nov. 14, had to be put off for a day due to weather concerns — and when today’s countdown began, the chances of acceptable weather were rated at 50-50. But the weather improved, a glitch involving a hatch leak was quickly resolved, and the Falcon 9 rose from its launch pad into the night at 7:27 p.m. ET (4:27 p.m. PT.)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, thousands watched the launch in person from Florida’s Space Coast. Hundreds of thousands watched streaming video coverage via NASA and SpaceX. Live coverage is scheduled to continue during the Dragon’s cruise to the space station.

Vice President Mike Pence flew in to lead a delegation of VIPs at the spaceport. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell were on hand as well — but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted that he may have had “a moderate case of COVID,” kept a low profile.

Mission commander Mike Hopkins referred to the pandemic and its effects just before the launch of the Dragon capsule, which has been christened “Resilience.”

“By working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part, the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” Hopkins said. “And now it’s time for us to do our part — Crew-1 for All.”

Minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated and sent the Crew Dragon into orbit, while the first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown aboard a drone ship.

Only two astronauts rode the Dragon in May, but this time around, the reusable crew capsule is carrying a standard complement of four spacefliers. Hopkins was accompanied by pilot Victor Glover, NASA mission specialist Shannon Walker and Japanese mission specialist Soichi Noguchi.

After the crew reached orbit, mission controllers reported a pressure pump spike in the Dragon’s thermal control system, which maintains comfortable conditions inside the crew cabin. Engineers went into troubleshooting mode, returned the system to normal operation and gave the go-ahead for the trip to proceed.

Yet another issue, involving a balky set of propellant line heaters for the Dragon’s thruster system, was resolved fairly quickly.

The Crew Dragon is scheduled to hook up with the station around 11 p.m. ET (8 p.m. PT) on Nov. 16. Then the Dragon’s quartet is due to join the station’s three current occupants and spend the next six months on orbital duty. That’s significantly longer than the 63 days that the previous Dragon crew spent docked to the station.

Because the station has only six sleeping compartments, Hopkins plans to take a sleeping bag and bunk down in the Dragon capsule.

Glover, the crew’s only space rookie, will earn his own entry in the history books as the first African-American astronaut to serve as a member of a long-duration expedition crew — Expedition 64.

The Crew Dragon shuttle service to the space station is the culmination of a six-year-long, multibillion-dollar development effort, sparked by the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. That marked the start of an era during which Russia provided the only way to send NASA astronauts to and from the station, at a cost ranging as high as $90 million per seat.

With funding from NASA, Boeing has been working on a second type of space taxi known as the CST-100 Starliner. Last December, a Starliner suffered software glitches during an uncrewed orbital test. That forced a months-long investigation, and a repeat of the uncrewed test flight to the station is expected to take place early next year.

Update for 8:30 p.m. PT Nov. 15: Space crews are now in the habit of bringing along toy mascots that indicate when their flight enters its zero-G phase, by floating up in the cabin while the crews are still restrained in their seats. For the Dragon mission that was launched in May, a plush dinosaur called Tremor did the trick. This time around, a toy Baby Yoda served as the crew’s zero-G indicator. Hmm … with all this commercialization that NASA is conducting, maybe there’s an opportunity to make a few bucks on product placement.


By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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