For the first time in history, a government agency and a private company have collaborated in a mission of space exploration. NASA and SpaceX have conducted the launch of Dragon capsule which carried two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, to the International Space Station (ISS).
It’s the first time since NASA used space shuttles that an American crew has made the journey from US territory. The agency also appear to be shifting to a new model of operation. From now on, they will use services of private companies like SpaceX to transport their astronauts to the ISS.
Elon Musk said he was filled with emotion watching his spaceship carry the astronauts to orbit.
“I think this is something that should get people right in the heart, of anyone that has the spirit of exploration. And the US is the distillation of the spirit of exploration,” he told reporters.
Before the launch, there were issues with the weather forecast predicting a 50:50 chance of favorable conditions, but luckily that wasn’t an issue.
The Falcon took off the spaceport’s 39A pad to travel northeast out over the Atlantic. After two-and-a-half minutes, the lower-stage of the vehicle had detached to return to a drone ship at sea. After an additional six minutes, the crew was safely in orbit.
Despite the Dragon capsule being fully automated on its way to the ISS, the crew was prepared for all possibilities and that meant knowing exactly how the ship will behave in their hands. This was made interesting by the fact that the Dragon capsule did not have a control stick. In fact, all commands were behind a touch screen.
The crew respected the tradition in naming their vessel once in the air.
Doug Hurley said: “We chose Endeavor for a few reasons: One, because of this incredible endeavor that NASA, SpaceX, and the US have been on since the end of the shuttle program back in 2011. The other reason is a little more personal to Bob and I. We both had our first flights on shuttle Endeavor and it just meant so much to us to carry on that name.”
Endeavor was also the name of James Cook’s ship on his journey to Australia in the 18th century.
NASA And SpaceX Prevail Despite Coronavirus
Saturday’s launch went ahead despite the coronavirus crisis.
People were encouraged not to gather near the Kennedy complex, and NASA itself rigorously limited the number of invitees on to the spaceport.
As for the astronauts, they would generally comply with quarantine before the flight. Yet, NASA decreased the number of people the men could come into contact in the weeks before the launch, and those that had to get close were told to wear face masks.
On Sunday night Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken have boarded the ISS.
Confirmation of the Dragon’s docking at the ISS came at 14:16 GMT (15:16 BST) 19 hours after leaving the Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon rocket also provided by SpaceX.
This was a completely automated process. Astronauts had no need to get involved, but they still prepared for manual flying on approach.
They were met by ISS Commander and fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
“We’re just happy to be here and Chris is going to put us to work. And hopefully, we will fit in and not mess too many things up,” said Hurley.
Behnken confirmed the pair were well rested and prepared for their mission.
“We did get probably a good seven hours or so (of sleep),” he said to Houston. “The first night is always a little bit of a challenge, but the Dragon was a slick vehicle, and we had good airflow and so we had an excellent evening. (We’re) just excited to be back in low-Earth orbit again.”
A New Era For NASA And SpaceX
Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated the duo on a job well done: “The whole world saw this mission and we are so, so proud of everything you’ve done for our country and, in fact, to inspire the world.”
This mission marks the opening of a new era in which NASA will be buying carrier services from the private sector.
This will be executed by firms such as SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, which is led by Elon Musk.
“We want to establish a commercial environment in low-Earth orbit so that we can focus on the hard job of exploring beyond our home planet, to establish a sustained presence on the Moon and get to Mars to establish a presence there,” said Bob Cabana, the director at Kennedy. “We can’t do that if we’re locked here in low-Earth orbit, and commercial crew – that’s the beginning of a whole new era of spaceflight.”
Hurley’s and Behnken’s job on the mission is to test all onboard systems and to give their feedback to engineers.
NASA and SpaceX need a clean crewed demonstration so they can move to the next phase of the company’s $2.6bn contract which will encompass six astronaut “taxi” flights.