SpaceX launches two NASA astronauts on historic mission

Author: William Harwood/ CBS News
Published: Updated:
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches the NASA crew aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon to orbit toward their mission to the International Space Station Saturday, May 30, 2020. Credit: NASA via CBS News.

In a historic first for the U.S. space program, a spacecraft designed, built, owned and operated by a private company — SpaceX — blasted off Saturday with two NASA astronauts aboard — the first purely private sector launch to orbit in space history. It was also the first launch of a crew from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended nearly nine years ago.

Cheered on by a nation in the grip of a devastating pandemic, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the company’s first piloted Crew Dragon ferry ship, vaulted away from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT to kick off a long-awaited test flight to the International Space Station.

Liftoff came three days after stormy weather forced SpaceX to call off the first launch attempt Wednesday.

Saturday’s launching was in doubt until late in the countdown, due to the same weather system along Florida’s Space Coast and rough conditions along the spacecraft’s downrange trajectory. But as the afternoon wore on, conditions improved enough for cautious mission managers to give a “go” to proceed.

Strapped into the capsule’s two center seats were commander Douglas Hurley, pilot of the final shuttle mission in 2011, and his best friend, veteran spacewalker Robert Behnken. Both men are making their third trip to the orbiting space laboratory.

Wearing futuristic-looking SpaceX-designed pressure suits, the astronauts will be monitoring the progress of their fully automated climb to space on large touchscreen displays, and replying to calls from SpaceX flight controllers at the company’s Hawthorne, California, rocket factory.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon ahead of Saturday’s scheduled launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, May 30, 2020.

Streaking away to the northeast through, the Falcon 9 climbed directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit, putting on a spectacular afternoon show as it consumed propellants, lost weight and rapidly accelerated.

It was a thrilling moment for SpaceX employees, NASA workers, Space Coast residents and President Trump, who traveled to the launch site despite the questionable weather forecast to witness the dawn of a new era in space travel.

With the Kennedy Space Center closed to non-essential personnel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA urged tourists to stay away and enjoy the launch on television or via computer.

But that did not dampen the excitement at NASA and at SpaceX, the innovative rocket California company that has shaken up the commercial launch industry with its low-cost, partially reusable rockets.

“This is the culmination of a dream,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CBS News in a pre-launch interview. “If you asked me when starting SpaceX if this would happen, I’d be like, 1 percent, .1 percent chance. It’s an absurd thing to even consider.

“I’m extremely appreciative of NASA for supporting us from actually quite an early stage and taking a chance on a little company that didn’t really have that much of a chance. But you know, it worked out.”

The historic mission is the first orbital flight of a new piloted spacecraft in 39 years. It’s the culmination of a six-year, multibillion-dollar NASA drive to end the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transporting astronauts to and from the space station.

The ability to launch government-financed, privately owned ferry ships will enable NASA to expand the space station’s crew to seven, including four full-time NASA and partner agency astronauts, maximizing the amount of research that can be carried out in the $100 billion lab complex.

Known as Demonstration test flight No. 2, or Demo 2, Saturday’s flight was the second launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first with astronauts on board. If no major problems are found, the agency is expected to certify the spacecraft for operational space station crew rotation missions, clearing with way for the launch of a three-man one-woman crew this fall.

Longer term, NASA also expects the Commercial Crew Program — under which SpaceX and, eventually, Boeing, will launch private citizens as well as professional astronauts — to open up the high frontier to private sector development, including privately operated space stations.

That’s the big picture. The headline Saturday: the launching marked the resumption of U.S. launches of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil after nearly nine years. And the Falcon 9 did not disappoint.

Reusable rockets — and an abort system for safety

The nine Merlin engines powering the Falcon’s first stage, generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust, propelled the rocket away from the launch pad. Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the flight plan called for the first stage to fall away and head for a landing on an off-shore drone ship.

The second stage, meanwhile, relied on its single vacuum-rated Merlin to continue the push to space. It was expected to burn for nearly 10 minutes before shutting down, putting the vehicle into a preliminary orbit.

The first stage was programmed to land on the drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” one minute later. Two minutes after that, the Crew Dragon was to be released from the Falcon 9’s second stage to fly on its own.

The Crew Dragon is the first U.S. spacecraft to launch with a “full-envelope” abort system in case something goes wrong. It’s designed to propel the crew capsule away from a malfunctioning booster at any point from the launch pad to orbit, an option shuttle crews did not have.

While that results in a much safer spacecraft, it raises the remote possibility of an ocean ditching at any point along a trajectory stretching from Cape Canaveral to Newfoundland and across the North Atlantic Ocean to Ireland.

Air Force rescue personnel were on standby Saturday at nearby Patrick Air Force Base and Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina, ready to hunt down the capsule and recover the astronauts and fly them back to shore in the event of an abort.

On track to dock with the space station

But the Falcon 9 performed flawlessly, the abort system was not needed and the astronauts settled in for a 19-hour flight to rendezvous with the International Space Station.

The capsule is designed to calculate its position and carry out rendezvous rocket firings as required. But Hurley and Behnken planned to briefly take manual control after reaching orbit to test the capsule’s steering system and verify their ability to take over if necessary. A similar test is planned during final approach to the space station.

The astronauts planned to call it a day around 8:45 p.m. SpaceX flight controllers will monitor the spacecraft overnight and oversee a rendezvous rocket firing before wakeup music, a long-standing NASA tradition, is radioed to the capsule around 4:45 a.m. Sunday — the first such wakeup music since the shuttle Atlantis’ final flight in 2011.

Two-and-a-half-hours later, the Crew Dragon is expected to be about 7.5 miles behind and below the space station. A series of carefully timed rocket firings is planned to move it up to a point directly in front of the laboratory, lined up on the same docking port space shuttles once used.

From there, the Crew Dragon will move straight in, pausing along the way to verify all systems are go for docking and to give the astronauts another opportunity to test the manual steering controls.

If all goes well, the spacecraft’s forward docking mechanism will engage its counterpart on the station at 10:30 a.m. EDT Sunday and the capsule will be pulled in for an airtight seal.

Standing by to welcome Hurley and Behnken aboard will be Expedition 63 commander Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who were launched to the station April 9 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

On Friday, the space station passed directly over the Kennedy Space Center and Vagner sent down a photo of Florida’s “legendary launching complex” showing pads 39A and B, pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where United Launch Alliance plans to send up Boeing Starliner crew capsules, and nearby pad 40 where SpaceX launches commercial payloads.

Cassidy is currently the lone American on board the space station, highlighting the significance of the Crew Dragon mission. NASA is working to end its sole reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting space lab, and the U.S. only has one more Soyuz seat reserved for a flight in October.

Hurley and Behnken are expected to remain aboard the station for at least six weeks and possibly as long as four months, helping Cassidy with a full slate of research and, possibly, with one or more spacewalks to install new solar array batteries and complete installation of a European experiment platform.

NASA managers are holding off making a decision on the mission’s duration until they get a better idea of how the Crew Dragon capsule’s solar cells hold up in the space environment.

An eventual landing date also will depend on the summertime weather off the coast of Florida, where Hurley and Behnken will splash down, and the time needed to evaluate the capsule’s performance in general before the next Crew Dragon flight, currently targeted for the end of August.

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