An international crew of four astronauts (three from the US and one from Japan) is now on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) following a successful launch on a SpaceX rocket.
It’s the first NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system in history.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule on top of it took off from Kennedy Space Center. The launch happened a day later than planned due to bad weather but at 7:27 p.m. local time on Sunday, November 15, it took off with four astronauts on board: Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Soichi Noguchi.
The capsule successfully separated from the second stage of the rocket and, according to a SpaceX team member speaking over the radio, is currently on the correct trajectory to reach the ISS. The crew should dock at their destination on Tuesday, joining two Russians and an American aboard the station.
It is the second manned flight for SpaceX, a private company founded by Tesla’s owner Elon Musk, which will now take NASA astronauts into space after nine years of US dependence on Russian Soyuz rockets. Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the launch, called it “a new era in human space exploration in America.”
SpaceX has signed a $3 billion contract with NASA to develop, test, and fly an astronaut taxi service. The deal also includes six “operational” (or routine) missions, this flight being the first of them. Back in May, the company performed a demonstration in which two astronauts were taken to the station and returned safely to Earth.
NASA has a similar agreement with the Boeing aerospace company, although its service is more than a year behind SpaceX. It’s a new model of contracting out transportation to low-Earth orbit, the agency said, saving money in procurement costs. NASA wants to use this model to fund its Moon and Mars ambitions.
As the rockets and capsules are developed by SpaceX and Boeing, with NASA being the customer, the companies will also use their vehicles to fly tourists, private researchers, or anyone else who can afford a $50 million ticket. This has been seen as controversial but it’s part of the way forward chosen by NASA.
“The big milestone here is that we are now moving away from development and test and into operational flights. And in fact, this operational flight was licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. So this is a truly a commercial launch,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
The crew and their mission
The crew will carry out scientific experiments and maintenance operations during a six-month stay aboard the ISS and will return in spring 2021. It is scheduled to be the longest human space mission ever launched from the US. The spacecraft is capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days, per NASA requirements.
It’s only last week that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was officially certified as a spacecraft capable of carrying people. This opens the door for the company to begin making the trip relatively routine, carrying astronauts from a variety of backgrounds. In this mission, for instance, Walker and Noguchi have backgrounds in physics and will oversee a series of experiments.
“In the next 15 months, we should be flying roughly seven Dragon missions. And this mission represents the initiation of a Dragon in orbit continuously – knocking on wood – and certainly is really the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight,” said SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell in a statement.
Among their research at the ISS, the crew will assess the effects of microgravity on human health and diseases using specialized organ-on-chip platforms. These ’tissue chips’ have been hailed as an important innovation for this type of study. The astronauts will also test a new system to remove heat from NASA’s next generation spacesuit.
At the end of the mission, the astronauts will once again board the Crew Dragon capsule, which will autonomously undock, depart the space station, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule also will return to Earth with important and time-sensitive research, NASA said in a statement.