SpaceX's first crew test flight goes well so far — Dragon roars

Olive Hawkins
March 2, 2019

The US may have moved one step closer to weaning itself off its reliance on Russian Federation to get astronauts into space as SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule has embarked on its first test mission to the International Space Station.

While no people were on board, the flight represents a significant step for NASA.

SpaceX already has made 16 trips to the space station using cargo Dragons. This iteration can carry seven human passengers, which it'll eventually carry to the ISS in low Earth orbit. The unmanned launch is the first stage of the Demo-1 mission, created to test the capabilities of the capsule over the next week, as it heads toward the International Space Station.

It will be fitted with monitors to test the forces that future astronauts will be subjected to on take-off and when they return to the Earth's atmosphere and then splash down in the Atlantic, slowed down by giant parachutes. While Falcon 9's have completed many successful lift-offs, today's was special because it is the first outing for SpaceX's new Crew Dragon module, created to take astronauts into orbit.

"To be frank, I'm a little emotionally exhausted, " Musk told reporters barely an hour after liftoff. "But it worked - so far".

For SpaceX, sending an astronaut into orbit would be a culmination of years of hard work and high-risk investment. But despite all its successes, the company has yet to fly astronauts. SpaceX and Boeing are leading that charge, so the successful Crew Dragon launch represents a major milestone moment. SpaceX plans to recycle the newly flying capsule for a high-altitude abort test this spring, along with a booster launched and retrieved a week ago. Boeing's first flight with people is scheduled for August. Many officials have warned that since the program is still in the test phase the schedules are likely to slip, perhaps even significantly.

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At Saturday's post-launch news conference, Musk said he'd be happy to fly on the revamped Dragon. "I think that's something that we'll do, and NASA's very supportive of that".

Early Saturday morning, SpaceX successfully launched its Crew Dragon capsule from the NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, making it the first ever commercial spacecraft to leave Earth. The response was positive.

Dragon 2 is a reusable spacecraft designed as a successor to the Dragon space freighter. Dragon has to safely dock with the station, which is expected to happen Sunday morning.

The docking port itself is new and has never been used. "But we also want to make sure we have our own capability to get back and forth to the International Space Station". Critics objected to budget cuts to NASA as well as concerns about whether the private sector would be able to follow through on providing launch services.

During its five-day stay, USA astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will run tests and inspect Crew Dragon's cabin. The craft will remain docked for five days before de-orbiting and splashing into the Atlantic at the end of next week.

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