SpaceX Crew Dragon success heralds a new era for NASA spaceflight

SpaceX Crew Dragon success heralds a new era for NASA spaceflight

The Demo-1 mission paves the way for crews to launch from US soil for the first time since 2011.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft built for humans to travel in to the International Space Station, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday morning, ending a historic mission and beginning the next phase of human spaceflight.

A huge round of applause and cheers erupted at SpaceX mission control in California as the capsule hit the water. With that — the first water landing in the Atlantic since Apollo 9 in 1969 — SpaceX moved one step closer to sending humans into orbit.

Significant delays hampered the launch of the Crew Dragon , but on March 2 it finally achieved liftoff from storied Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. It then trailed the ISS for 24 hours before achieving a landmark docking via the station’s Harmony module, and special docking adapter, on March 3.

The Crew Dragon re-entering the atmosphere on March 8.

While docked at the ISS, humans entered the vehicle for the first time in space . It remained docked with the station until Thursday, at which point the hatch was closed and locked and the capsule was readied for its return. At 11:32 p.m. PT, it released a set of hooks from the ISS and slowly drifted away from the space laboratory with two short thruster firings. A dummy, lovingly known as Ripley and dressed in SpaceX’s astronaut gear and a suite of sensors, was its lone crew member.

The Crew Dragon drifts away from the ISS.

“Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats through the work of our commercial partner SpaceX and all the talented and dedicated flight controllers at NASA and our international partners,” said Anne McClain, NASA flight engineer currently stationed at the ISS, as the capsule drifted away.

Five hours later, when it was safely away from the ISS, Crew Dragon jettisoned its lower trunk section to burn up in space. At 4:52 a.m. PT, the capsule’s thrusters fired once more, starting a 15-minute “deorbit burn,” slowing the craft enough to fall back to Earth.

Its biggest challenge was yet to come: atmospheric re-entry.

The forces exerted on the capsule as it blazed a trail through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds had SpaceX CEO Elon Musk concerned during the week. Although his team had run hundreds of simulations, the unusual shape of the spacecraft meant it might roll or spin as it dropped from space to sea.

Yet, when the moment arrived, the spacecraft showed no signs of a rickety descent, eventually deploying its quad-parachute system and safely splashing down in the Atlantic some 280 miles ( about 450 kilometers) from its original launching spot at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The capsule’s splashdown was attended by SpaceX’s recovery vessel “Go Searcher,” a ship equipped to pluck it from the roiling ocean waves and carry it back to shore.

Dragon’s drogue parachutes

With the landing, Crew Dragon’s six-day-long mission is complete, but there’s still work to be done. SpaceX was able to demonstrate the capsule’s launch, docking, undocking and re-entry capabilities and the validity of its parachute system, and now it has reams of data to analyze, including from Ripley’s suite of body sensors, to ensure the capsule is ready to ferry humans from Earth to the space station in just a few months’ time.

As part of the validation process, SpaceX and NASA will conduct an in-flight abort test, launching the Crew Dragon on top of a modified Falcon 9 rocket and then terminating the rocket engine as it reaches the point of max q — when pressure on the spacecraft is at its greatest. When it reaches this point, the Crew Dragon would use its own set of rocket boosters to launch away from the Falcon 9 and return to Earth.

That test is scheduled for June. Provided it goes well, the first crewed mission of SpaceX’s capsule will occur in July, featuring astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Success will also mean that “Earthy,” a plush anthropomorphic doll of our planet, will be coming home from the space station.

— NASA Commercial Crew (@Commercial_Crew) March 8, 2019

While the limelight has been squarely on SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space venture is only one half of NASA’s overall Commercial Crew ambitions. Historic aerospace company Boeing is also readying to fly to the ISS with its own capsule, the Starliner, in the coming months. Launching atop an Atlas V rocket, the Starliner will undergo similar testing in preparation for its own manned missions to space in the coming year.

For now, SpaceX wins the day — and continues to forge a path between the US and the International Space Station.

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