The first American spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts since the retirement of the space shuttles launched early Saturday.
There were no people on this demonstration flight, a SpaceX vehicle called Crew Dragon, which lifted off at 2:49 a.m. Eastern Time from NASA’s Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.
“This is really a big deal,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said in an interview on NASA Television before the launch.
The launch was an important step for the dream of Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who says the purpose of his space company is to get people to Mars. To date, though, the company has launched only satellites and cargo (and one Tesla sports car), not astronauts.
What are SpaceX and NASA trying to accomplish with this launch?
NASA has given a contract to SpaceX to develop a transportation system for taking its astronauts to the International Station. This mission, known as Demo-1, is an end-to-end test of the spacecraft from launch to docking at the International Space Station to splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. The idea is to uncover problems (and fix them) before putting astronauts aboard.
Th capsule is to arrive the space station on Sunday, about 27 hours after launch. It would leave on March 8,
Is there anything on board the Crew Dragon?
The capsule can seat up to seven astronauts. For this flight, one of the seats is occupied with a sort of artificial person — what NASA calls an A.T.D. or “anthropomorphic test device” — which is wearing a SpaceX spacesuit. The device includes sensors to measure forces and accelerations that a person would experience on the trip.
The SpaceX engineers named it Ripley, after the heroine in the Alien movies played by Sigourney Weaver. Late on Friday, SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk indicated it would have some company.
It is also carrying 400 pounds of cargo like any other journey to the space station, as well as inserts that simulate the mass of a more completely-filled capsule. Engineers on the ground will use information from the flight to understand how the spacecraft responds to being filled.
Who else is building a capsule for crew to get to the space station?
NASA also awarded a contracts to Boeing. The crewless test of Boeing’s capsule, named Starliner, could occur next month.
Why does NASA need these privately-built capsules?
Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, the only way for NASA astronauts to get to space has been to pay for trips aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA had been developing its own rocket, the Ares I, but that was much more expensive, and the Obama administration canceled the program. NASA had already started using commercial companies to take cargo to the space station, and the thinking was that commercial companies could provide cheaper rides for astronauts as well.
NASA is still developing a larger rocket, the Space Launch System, and capsule, Orion, for deep space missions. And NASA astronauts will continue to fly on Soyuz, and their Russian counterparts will fly on the Crew Dragon and Starliner; the idea is to make sure everyone is familiar with the workings of all of the various spacecraft.
When will the Crew Dragon carry people to space?
Both SpaceX and Boeing are aiming to launch their first crewed missions later this year, but if there are any additional delays, the flights could slip to next year. NASA is considering buying more Russian Soyuz seats.
Kenneth Chang has been at The Times since 2000, writing about physics, geology, chemistry, and the planets. Before becoming a science writer, he was a graduate student whose research involved the control of chaos. @kchangnyt
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