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.