On 30th May 2020, two NASA astronauts climbed inside a Crew Dragon space capsule and launched on top of a Falcon 9 rocket to fly to the International Space Station.
An Historic Mission
This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch was historic for three main reasons…
1 They were the first astronauts to launch from American soil in nearly a decade.
2 Commercial companies are now in charge of both the design and production of space vehicles.
The vehicle was commercially made by the company SpaceX and not by NASA. It was the culmination of NASA’s commercial crew program, and the first time a private company has ever launched humans into orbit. Commercial companies are now in charge of both the design and production of space vehicles.
3 But the primary significance of this mission is that the US will no longer have to rely on Russia to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
This could be the beginning of a very different era of human spaceflight.
The mission had a very different look from the space flights of the past. SpaceX’s new crew capsule is called the Crew Dragon. It is designed specifically to launch on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Its chief purpose is to ferry people to and from low earth orbit.
The new capsule is fitted out with life support systems, sleek chairs and shiny touchscreen displays. The astronauts’ custom-designed pressure suits are designed to keep them safe from the harsh environment of space if there is an emergency. The astronauts control the crew dragon through their special touchscreen gloves.
SpaceX Automated Control Systems
The ISS (International Space Station) docking system, built into the capsule, is entirely automatic. Using a sophisticated system of sensors and cameras, the vehicle can approach the International Space Station completely autonomously, and latch onto an ISS docking port. (In 2019, the SpaceX spaceship, “Crew Dragon” flew unmanned to the International Space Station and docked automatically without any crew on board).
SpaceX can now use the capsule to create a new space tourism business. In fact, the program is intended to kick-start the commercial space flight industry.
What are the next steps?
First, the two astronauts need to finish their mission. Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will spend a few weeks on board the International Space Station.
After that, they will climb back into the Crew Dragon and detach themselves from the space station. They will then make the perilous journey back to earth where a suite of parachutes will lower them gently into the ocean. They will then be retrieved by a SpaceX ship.
In the long term, this could become a standard operation for NASA, who are planning for private companies to build and deliver a Moon Lander vehicle onto the Moon.
This could be the beginning of a new space tourism program, commencing as early as 2021.