SpaceX opened a new era of human space travel on Saturday when it became the first private company to launch astronauts into orbit, nearly a decade after the government retired the space shuttle program, and a South African was in the driving seat of this amazing feat.
Two American astronauts lifted off at 9:22 pm local time from a familiar setting, the same Florida launchpad that once served Apollo missions and the space shuttles. But the rocket and capsule that lofted them out of the atmosphere were a new sight for many, built and operated not by NASA but SpaceX, the company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk to pursue his dream of sending colonists to Mars.
Millions from South Africa and around the world watched the launch online and on television as two veterans astronauts, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas O. Hurley. Patiently waited for the countdown to reach the big “0”. They both have backgrounds as military test pilots and have each flown twice previously on space shuttle missions, although this is the first time they have worked together on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the space shuttle’s final mission in 2011.
For the Astronauts flying into space is very much a family affair as both of them is married to a fellow astronaut, Bob Behnken to Megan McArthur and Doug Hurley to Karen Nyberg. In 2015, they were among the astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the commercial space vehicles that the companies were developing. In 2018, they were assigned to the first SpaceX flight.
In the years since the termination of the Space Shuttle Programme, NASA has paid Russia’s space program to transport its astronauts to the space station. And with this success, NASA has begun ceding this task to SpaceX and other companies.
As a bonus for the good start to the mission, the booster stage successfully landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic, now a routine feat for SpaceX.
Saturday’s launch preparations began with the astronauts donning their sleek SpaceX spacesuits with the assistance of SpaceX technicians. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, and Jim Morhard, the deputy administrator, visited them in the suit-up room before they set off for the launchpad. The astronauts were seen off by their families ahead of their drive to the launchpad. Bob Behnken asked his son, Theodore, “Are you going to listen to mommy and make her life easy,” referring to his wife, Megan McArthur, a fellow astronaut. The six-year-old replied, “Let’s light this candle! ”Within the hour, they had boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and started the hours of procedures they must complete before the launch attempt.
Behnken and Hurley announced that they had named their capsule Endeavour. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons: one, because of this incredible endeavour NASA, SpaceX, and the United States has been on since the end of the Shuttle program back in 2011,” Hurley said during an event right after launching to space. “The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I. We both had our first flights on Shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much to us to carry on that name.”
During the journey in space, Behnken and Hurley got some shut-eye before approaching the ISS to get a better sense of what sleeping on the Crew Dragon is like. It turns out, it’s a comfortable place for a nap. “We had a good night’s sleep last night,” Behnken said during an event before arriving at the ISS. “We were surprised, I think, in how well we actually slept aboard the vehicle, a little bit quieter than the Space Shuttle, a little bit more environmentally controlled.” The Crew Dragon also sports a toilet in case they needed to use the facilities during the trip.
Nineteen Hours later SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station, bringing the company’s first crew to the orbiting outpost. Their arrival marks another major milestone for SpaceX’s first crewed mission of the Crew Dragon. The Crew Dragon’s passengers begin an extended stay on board the ISS that could last up to four months. They joined three crew mates already living on board the station: NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
“It’s been a real honour to be a small part of this nine-year endeavour since the last time a United States spaceship docked with the International Space Station,” Hurley said after docking completed. “We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX, at Hawthorne McGregor and at Kennedy Space Centre. Their incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible can not go overstated.”
The Crew Dragon’s docking showcased one of the biggest features of SpaceX’s capsule: its automated docking system. The vehicle is designed to autonomously approach the ISS and latch on to a standardized docking port, without any input from its human passengers. SpaceX successfully showcased this ability last year when the company sent a test version of the Crew Dragon to the space station without a crew on board. But this time, the company needed to prove that the Crew Dragon could deliver when it had its most precious cargo on board.
This automated docking capability is a significant upgrade for the Crew Dragon. The predecessor to the capsule, SpaceX’s cargo Dragon, did not have this capability when it delivered supplies and food to the ISS. For all of those cargo missions, astronauts on-board the ISS had to use the station’s robotic arm to grab hold of an approaching cargo Dragon and bring it onto a docking port. That technique is known as berthing, and it requires a lot of work from the astronauts onboard the ISS. The Crew Dragon’s automated capabilities should help free up time for the astronauts to work on other things when new crews arrive.
Astronauts flying inside the Crew Dragon still have the capability to take over manual control of the vehicle if necessary. In fact, Behnken and Hurley tried out some manual flying during their time in space, once after launching and a second time during their approach to the space station. Flying the vehicle manually involves interfacing with the Crew Dragon’s sleek interior touch-screen displays.
The gloves of SpaceX’s pressure suits are touch-screen compatible, allowing the astronauts to interact with the screens while suited up if necessary. When the crew got to 220 meters out from the ISS, Hurley demonstrated that he could fly the vehicle while gloved before the automatic docking system took over. The plumes from the capsule’s tiny thrusters could be seen from the space station’s cameras as the vehicle inched toward the ISS.
Now that Behnken and Hurley have arrived at the ISS, it’s unclear when they’ll be coming home. The two are expected to stay on-board the ISS somewhere between six and sixteen weeks. It all depends on how much work NASA wants them to do while they’re up there. At some point, NASA will decide when to bring the duo home. That’s when Behnken and Hurley will climb back inside the Crew Dragon and take the plunge back to Earth.