American astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s flight to the International Space Station over the weekend completed the second and final test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Now the spacecraft can get NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certification for long-duration missions to the space station. Its success highlights the large role commercial businesses likely will play in future missions.
Although the Crew Dragon is more technologically advanced, with touch-screen control panels instead of buttons and switches, it recalls the capsule missions to space in the 1960s and ’70s. Apollo astronauts jettisoned the rockets that propelled their capsules into the ocean or outer space, and reentry and splashdown often damaged the capsules themselves. NASA switched all of its manned flights to space shuttles in the early 1980s because they could land on a runway and be used again. But the shuttle program retired in 2011 for budgetary reasons, and the United States began paying Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station. The trip can cost up to $90 million per astronaut, National Geographic reported.
Saturday’s launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was the first time astronauts have blasted off from the United States since 2011. It was also the first private, commercially built manned space launch. The spacecraft’s Falcon 9 rocket landed safely on a barge in the ocean after detaching from the Crew Dragon. SpaceX plans not to reuse Crew Dragon capsules yet for the safety of the astronauts, but it already reuses the Cargo Dragon, the unmanned version that takes supplies and other payload into space.
The launch of the Crew Dragon has paved the way for future human exploration to the moon and Mars, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, ushering in “a new era in human spaceflight … as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
Behnken and Hurley plan to stay on the space station for one to two months before taking the Crew Dragon back to Earth and splashing down off the coast of Florida. —J.B.