Elon Musk's SpaceX made history on Saturday with the launch of its first spaceflight carrying astronauts, which is also the first crewed launch from U.S. soil in nine years and marks the beginning of an era of private sector spaceflight.
This long-anticipated launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 27, but mission leads opted to scrub it fewer than 20 minutes before the rocket was set to blast off. Following a tense day of dark clouds and even a tornado warning near the Cape Canaveral launchpad, the weather conditions were deemed an unacceptable threat to the safety of the mission and its astronauts.
Though clouds threatened to postpone the launch again on Saturday, the weather fortunately cleared in time for the backup time-slot for the launch. At 3:22 PM EDT on Saturday, May 30, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, carrying two astronauts in a Crew Dragon capsule, who are now on their way to the International Space Station. This launchpad is the same historic site where the Apollo astronauts took off on NASA’s Saturn V rocket some 50 years ago.
The Apollo crews made history by performing the first crewed Moon landings, and now Hurley and Behnken have become the first astronauts ever to travel to space in a commercial vessel, heralding a new age of private sector spaceflight. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s flight features a key innovation: the reusable booster of the Falcon 9 rocket is able to return to Earth and land on a drone ship.
The pair will spend a day traveling to the ISS and testing out some of the manual controls on the Crew Dragon. They are set to arrive and dock at the station on Sunday, and will join the ISS crew that is currently onboard.
The plan after that is somewhat hazy, as NASA hasn’t yet decided how long Hurley and Behnken will stay at the station. It may be only a few weeks, and it will not exceed more than four months, as that is the maximum amount of time the Crew Dragon can stay docked to the station without risking degradation of its solar panels, according to The Verge
Once the Crew Dragon does return to Earth, whenever that may be, it will brave atmospheric reentry and then splash down off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. This will mark the first time that NASA astronauts have landed in the ocean since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint American-Soviet mission, in 1975. NASA’s Space Shuttle was designed to perform runway landings, while the Russian Soyuz capsule that NASA has relied on since 2011 deploys parachutes to slow the craft for touch down in Kazakhstan.
Today is the beginning of a momentous journey for Hurley, Behnken, and the broader NASA and SpaceX communities. But this trip is only the first of many: As NASA’s commercial partners continue to develop their launch systems, it will become increasingly common to see astronauts blasting off from Florida’s Space Coast on private spacecraft.