With a flash of light, billowing smoke, and a thunderous roar, American astronauts on Saturday afternoon blasted into space aboard an American spacecraft for the first time since NASA decommissioned the aging, unsafe Space Shuttle fleet in 2011.
The first manned flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft not only restores the United States’ ability to launch people into orbit, it also signals a possible new era of space exploration.
Thousands of people tuned into livestreams of the historic launch from NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center near Orlando. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and President Donald Trump flew in to see off astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley and observe the launch.
“This is going to be like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup all rolled into one,” Zeb Scoville, NASA’s flight director, told reporters in the weeks leading up to the launch.
Mission-controllers canceled a previous launch attempt on Wednesday owing to bad weather. As late as Saturday morning, SpaceX tweeted that there was a 50 percent chance of a storm interfering with the day’s lift-off. But the weather remained clear and the spacecraft lifted off just before 3:25 p.m. ET.
In a sharp break from the old way of launching into space, California rocket company SpaceX owns the Crew Dragon and its self-landing, reusable Falcon 9 rocket. NASA just rents the spacecraft and the rocket at a cost of around $55 million per passenger.
“We’re doing it differently than we’ve ever done it before,” Bridenstine told reporters. “NASA is not going to purchase, own and operate hardware the way we used to purchase, own and operate hardware.”
The space agency hopes that this new arrangement will fuel a whole industry of private companies offering ever-cheaper rides into space for science, mining, manufacturing, and even tourism. Aerospace firms Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also developing manned capsules.
A self-sustaining space economy could take years to evolve. First, SpaceX and NASA must deliver Behnken and Hurley to the International Space Station, circling Earth at an altitude of 250 miles.
“The stakes are clearly high,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Washington, D.C., Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told The Daily Beast. “This shows how far industry has advanced and is ready to support America in space—at greater levels of safety, faster development and far lower costs than traditional-owned government systems.”
For Musk, Saturday’s launch was the culmination of nearly two decades of work. Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, started SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of driving down the cost of rocket launches. SpaceX’s earliest launches in 2008 and 2009 were failures.
Musk and SpaceX kept at it. By 2010 more of the company’s launches were succeeding than failing. NASA pumped some money into the company. The U.S. Air Force hired it to launch satellites and robotic space planes. But a manned spacecraft was one of Musk and SpaceX's ultimate goals.
Barring any malfunctions, the journey to the space station will take just short of a day. Steered by a sophisticated artificial-intelligence autopilot, the cone-shaped, roughly dumpster-sized Crew Dragon will maneuver to within 60 feet of the space station.
That’s when the Behnken and Hurley will take over, tapping touch-screen controls to activate thrusters that will gently nudge the capsule toward one of the station’s airlocks. “Growing up as a pilot my whole career and having a certain way to control a vehicle, this is certainly different,” Hurley told reporters.
The capsule and the station will combine their atmospheres, allowing the newly-arrived astronauts to safely board the orbital facility.
NASA and SpaceX haven’t decided yet how long Behnekn, Hurley, and their capsule will stay with the space station. Their visit could end in a month or three months, at which point the astronauts will ride the Crew Dragon back down to Earth, streaking through the atmosphere then deploying a parachute before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy will steam in to recover the crew and capsule.
With its conical shape and parachute-recovery method, the Crew Dragon has a lot in common with the Apollo capsules that carried astronauts to the moon in 1969. “But don’t let looks deceive you,” space historian Roger Launius told The Daily Beast. “The technology of Apollo and technology of today are strikingly different.”
The Crew Dragon boasts the latest computers, controls and amenities, including a high-tech space toilet. Its crew and passengers wear sleek new spacesuits. NASA plans to pack no more than four astronauts at a time into the Crew Dragon’s uncluttered interior, but in its most capacious configuration it can carry up to seven people. “It’s an outstanding flying machine,” Behnken said.
It took years of research and development costing $3 billion to ready the Crew Dragon for its first manned mission. NASA and the U.S. space industry haven’t designed a spacecraft from scratch since the Space Shuttle.
That was 40 years ago. Without the benefit of recent experience, the Crew Dragon’s developers had to relearn old lessons. “It was a little Wild West early on,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters.
Minor miscalculations, a single line of bad code, a tiny hole in the spacecraft’s structure—any of these could have doomed Crew Dragon.
Boeing learned that the hard way during an unmanned test mission involving its own Starliner capsule back in December. The Starliner’s autopilot mistimed a thruster blast, burning up its fuel supply and making it impossible for the craft to reach the International Space Station. Boeing plans to repeat the test sometime this year.
SpaceX experienced a test-failure of its own on Friday, when the fourth prototype of the company’s new Starship rocket exploded following a test in Texas. Musk was well aware of the risk involved in the Crew Dragon launch. “If it goes wrong, it's my fault," he told CBS This Morning on Wednesday.
Anticipating all the possible ways space travel can go wrong is one of the keys to doing it safely. That’s what worried James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller. “The degree to which the SpaceX team has absorbed this insight and developed and applied this wisdom remains undemonstrated,” Oberg told The Daily Beast a few days before the launch.
“Their track record to date, including vigorous and on-target responses to setbacks, is encouraging,” Oberg said. “I’ll still be holding my breath.”
As the Crew Dragon climbed high over Florida, accelerating to 33 times the speed of sound—fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity—Musk and Oberg finally could breathe easy. After a nine-year gap, Americans were safely on their way into space aboard an American craft.