SpaceX achieved a critical milestone on Saturday night when its Crew Dragon space capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station. The feat marks the first time a commercial spacecraft capable of carrying humans hitched itself to the ISS, and the implications for Elon Musk’s rocket business and the U.S. space program are equally huge.
The Crew Dragon capsule launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 2:49 AM on Saturday morning, ferrying 450-pounds of cargo and a dummy astronaut named Ripley. There were no humans onboard this time around, but that wasn’t necessarily the point: This was a test for Crew Dragon’s viability, and if the vessel continues to surpass expectations while the ISS crew conducts a series of tests, SpaceX and NASA could be sending astronauts into orbit this summer, reports the Associated Press.
If everything goes according to plan, NASA and SpaceX could launch US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit as soon as July.
The accomplishment marks a “new chapter of American excellence,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted early Saturday morning:
Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence, getting us closer to once again flying American Astronauts on American rockets from American soil. Congratulations to the @SpaceX and @NASA teams for this major milestone in our nation’s history. #LaunchAmerica pic.twitter.com/Gk8c9EdXNO
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) March 2, 2019
This was far less of a publicity stunt than SpaceX’s last launch with a dummy astronaut, which involved blasting a Tesla Roadster into orbit: Crew Dragon’s mannequin is equipped with sensors, meant to gauge the journey’s strain on a real human passenger. Over the course of its six days on the ISS, the viability of Crew Dragon will be further assessed by astronauts. Per the AP: “Ripley and the capsule are rigged with sensors to measure noise, vibration and stresses and monitor the life-support, propulsion and other critical systems.”
On Sunday, astronauts opened the capsule’s doors to allow its oxygen to mix with the ISS air supply. Three crew members wore oxygen masks while conducting tests on Crew Dragon’s air supply and retrieving the vessel’s cargo load, according to the report.
Crew Dragon’s arrival was marked by celebrations from ISS crew members, who posted their jubilant reactions to Twitter. Astronaut David Saint-Jacque said the event signals the “dawn of a new era in human spaceflight.”
— David Saint-Jacques (@Astro_DavidS) March 3, 2019
The event marked the first time since 2011 that NASA conducted an ISS-bound mission using rockets produced in the United States. Since the space shuttle Endeavour’s launch in 2011, the space agency has relied solely on Russia’s Soyuz space craft to ferry astronauts and supplies into orbit. This around, Crew Drago reached the giant laboratory onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Crew Dragon will remain latched to the ISS until Thursday, when it will embark on a journey back to Earth. It’s expected to make a splashdown landing in the Atlantic ocean, close to Kennedy Space Center.
Source: Associated Press
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics