There have been four Olympic Games, nine Super Bowls and 30 changes of season since the last time American astronauts launched from American soil on an American spacecraft. That unhappy streak began in July, 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the final flight of the 30-year shuttle program. The wait has not ended yet, but it came a lot closer to at last being over with the successful launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Crew Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral at 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday morning, as lightning flashed in the far distance.
As of about 3 a.m. ET, the Crew Dragon is flying in space for the first time, en route to the International Space Station (ISS), while the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed safely back on Earth, touching down on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship.
There was no one aboard the Crew Dragon this time, save an “anthropomorphic test device,” or ATD. That’s space-speak for a dummy in a SpaceX spacesuit, outfitted with sensors to record g-forces, vibrations and other effects a real astronaut would experience on launch and in flight. If the rest of the mission goes as well as Saturday morning’s launch, two such actual astronauts could fly on the Crew Dragon as early as July.
“Tonight was a big night for the United States of America, a great night for NASA,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference on Saturday morning. “What today really represents is a new era in spaceflight.”
SpaceX’s mission was a very long time coming. It was in 2009 that then-President Barack Obama announced that after the shuttle retired, NASA would get out of the business of flying astronauts to low-Earth orbit—including to the ISS—and outsource the work to private companies instead. In 2014, newcomer SpaceX and legacy aerospace firm Boeing were picked as the two companies that would build America’s new spaceships, winning contracts of $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion respectively. The first crewed flights were supposed to begin in 2016, but the schedule slipped repeatedly due to design problems and the occasional accident. In 2015, one SpaceX rocket on a cargo run to the International Space Station blew up after launch; in 2016, another exploded on the pad during an engine test. Neither had any souls aboard.
During a press event a week before Saturday’s launch, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William H. Gerstenmaier did his best to lower expectations. “I fully expect we’re going to learn something on this flight,” he said. “I guarantee you everything will not work exactly right. And that’s cool.”
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon still has a week of work ahead of it. The spacecraft navigated its way to the ISS over the course of a day, arriving Sunday morning. It docked with the station autonomously—a departure from the practice used for SpaceX cargo vehicles, which ISS astronauts grab with the station’s robotic arm and bring in for a gentle docking. In addition to the anthropomorphic dummy—named Ripley after the lead character in the Alien movies—the Crew Dragon also carried about 400 lbs. of supplies. (That’s just a fraction of the three or so tons the uncrewed cargo vehicles usually ferry up, but the crewed version makes use of most of the interior volume with a reconfigurable cockpit that can be outfitted with up to seven seats and seven instrument displays.) On March 8, the Crew Dragon is scheduled to separate from the station and return to Earth, splashing down in the ocean under parachutes.
“To be frank I’m a little emotionally exhausted, because that was super stressful, but, it worked… so far,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk during the Saturday morning press conference. “We have to dock with station, we have to come back. We’ve passed some of the riskiest items.”
Even if every single step of Crew Dragon’s mission goes precisely as planned, SpaceX and NASA will still have a lot to sweat when the crewed flights at last begin. Some of the most serious worry starts on the launchpad. Typically, rockets are fueled before the astronauts climb aboard—a procedure that has been followed since the early days of the space program. Fuel is by definition volatile, and the mere business of pumping it into rocket tanks presents plenty of opportunity for something to blow.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9, however, relies on a supercooled mix of fuel that can’t remain in its tanks for long before warming up and losing efficiency. For that reason, the company uses a “load and go” procedure, with the astronauts climbing aboard first and fueling beginning just 35 minutes before scheduled liftoff. A lot of critics, including some astronauts, have had a lot to say about that idea—little of it good, especially after SpaceX’s 2016 launchpad explosion.
Certainly, there are are safety measures built into the system to protect the astronauts in the event of such a disaster. Sensors in the spacecraft-booster stack are designed to detect trouble before it happens, and engines built into the base of the crew vehicle can ignite and blast the Dragon up and away from the exploding rocket, en route to a safe parachute splashdown in the ocean off the Florida coast. That was exactly the same fail-safe system built into NASA’s Mercury and Apollo spacecraft, though the escape engines were attached to a tower at the nose of the spacecraft, rather than recessed into the base. Over the course of six Mercury launches and 15 Apollos, the system was never needed. It was not needed in Saturday’s launch either.
The current SpaceX mission’s so-far success puts the heat on Boeing to get its own spacecraft—the CST-100 Starliner—off the pad too. Its first uncrewed launch is scheduled for next month. If that goes well, Boeing hopes for a crewed launch in August.
None of this can happen too soon for NASA. Ever since the shuttle stood down, the only way to get American astronauts to the ISS has been to buy seats aboard Russia’s venerable Soyuz spacecraft. That has been a blow to both the space agency’s pride and pocketbook: In 2006, a ride aboard a Soyuz cost $25 million. By 2018, Russia—recognizing a seller’s market when it saw one—had hiked the price to $81 million, an increase of 372%. And there’s the increasingly complex relationship between Washington and Moscow to navigate, too.
There’s also the simple tedium of being grounded for so long. The nearly eight years since the last astronauts lifted off from Cape Canaveral easily exceeds the previous such launch drought. That came in at just under six years, from the time the final crewed Apollo flew in 1975 to the time the first shuttle lifted off in 1981. Whenever NASA gets back into the astronaut launch game, the hoping is that this time it will be for keeps.