A skinny black-and-white rocket rocketed into the sky on Sunday night, climbing into the darkening Florida twilight sky. The nine engines burned brightly as the Falcon booster pushed a spacecraft carrying four astronauts into orbit.
And soon they were there.
It appears that SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon flight got off to a successful start and sailed smoothly through the mission’s difficult ascent phase. A few hours after launch, SpaceX engineers were troubleshooting a problem with heaters on fuel lines leading to the spacecraft’s Draco engines. But this will likely be resolved, and on Monday night, an hour before midnight, Florida time, the crew — NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover; and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi – should dock at the International Space Station.
If all goes well, their flight to the space station will be completely autonomous. The crew does not need to touch the flight controls on Crew Dragon’s touchscreens.
This Crew-1 mission comes after more than a decade of work by SpaceX and NASA to build a spaceship capable of safely launching humans into orbit, taking them to the space station, and safely back to Earth. to bring. While Sunday’s launch was just the first step, it was a crucial one.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Kathy Lueders, the associate administrator at NASA responsible for human exploration. “I’m pretty choked up thinking about the people who spent years of their lives preparing for this mission.”
NASA’s big gamble
The flight of a dragon called Resistance by his crew represents a huge victory for NASA, for several reasons. First of all, nearly a decade after the space shuttle’s retirement in July 2011, NASA finally has an independent means of getting its astronauts to the International Space Station.
While it will continue to work with Russia to maintain the orbiting laboratory, the space agency is no longer committed to a force with which the United States maintains tenuous relations. In addition, in the unlikely event of a problem with Russia’s Soyuz launch system, there will now be a second lifeline to the space station.
In addition, NASA took a big risk with its “commercial crew” program by relying on private companies to replace the space shuttle. After this public-private program was launched a decade ago, the key members of Congress who drafted NASA’s budget were skeptical and chronically underfunded for years. And there were plenty of people who questioned whether a startup company like SpaceX had the equipment to get people safely into space.
NASA faced a critical decision in 2014 in selecting finalists to complete development of shuttle replacements. The agency had a limited amount of money and three finalists: Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX. Boeing, with its legacy of success and status as a long-time contractor for NASA, was the favorite. With his limited budget, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, was under pressure to select only one contractor to ensure the program’s success.
“I’ll say we’ve had a lot of healthy discussions about the number of winners, and I think most of the people involved in the selection thought we were only going to make one prize,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space development at NASA, told me. to Ars. “I was adamant that we needed to keep competition, and I was probably the loudest voice arguing for that at the time, but in the end it was Bill’s decision. I know he put a lot of thought into the question of ‘how much’, and he ended up choosing two, which I think was one of the most profound decisions we’ve made.”
Ultimately, NASA chose both Boeing and SpaceX. The resulting competition spurred both companies to act faster. With Sunday’s flight, the newer, less proven SpaceX delivered first. Boeing has conducted a test flight with its Starliner spacecraft, but because that mission failed to reach the International Space Station due to multiple errors, Boeing must conduct an unmanned mission in 2021. Boeing’s first operational mission will likely not be until sometime in 2022.
Finally, by betting on commercial spaceflight, NASA has opened the door to a future where more and more people will be able to go to space. In a little over a year, a commercial mission on Crew Dragon with Tom Cruise is already on the program. Sunday night, at a post-launch press conference, President Gwynne Shotwell suggested, complete with a wink, that more commercial flights would follow.
“It really is the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight,” she said. And maybe she’s right.