For the first time in nearly a decade, a manned spacecraft has taken off from the Kennedy Space Center.
Launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon lifted off from Pad 39A in the Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County, Florida. This historic event is not only the first manned spacecraft to take off from Kennedy since 2011, but also the first crewed spaceflight by a private corporation.
The capsule’s two-person crew consists of Colonels Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley. They launched Saturday and are bound for the International Space Station. The purpose of the mission is to evaluate the capabilities of the Crew Dragon capsule. The crew will be monitoring how the spacecraft performs during launch, orbit, docking, and landing operations. An unmanned test took place in March of 2019, but this launch marks the Crew Dragon’s first manned test flight. If it performs satisfactorily, it will likely lead to the Crew Dragon gaining approval for regular flights under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
On their way to the International Space Station, Behnken and Hurley will conduct two manual flight tests on the Crew Dragon. The objective of the tests will be to evaluate the crew’s ability to maintain control of the spacecraft should a malfunction occur in the Dragon’s automated flight systems. Once the tests are complete, mission control will decide on whether to proceed with docking at the ISS.
Once aboard, Behnken and Hurley will join the three-person Expedition 63 crew already aboard the station.
This launch is the culmination of nearly twenty years of work. SpaceX conducted its first successful rocket launch in 2008 and has been working toward this point ever since. It represents a significant step in SpaceX’s goal of putting astronauts on Mars by 2024. Whether or not they can achieve that ambition remains to be seen. Still, this launch will remain a landmark in US space exploration.
“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who also acts as the company’s chief engineer. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA, and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”
But SpaceX isn’t the only company reaching for the stars in a very literal way. Aerospace giant Boeing has a spacecraft of its own and is SpaceX’s main rival in commercial spaceflight. The venerable aerospace manufacturer had been the early favorite in the commercial space race, receiving the largest share of government funding. Despite that, the company has faced numerous setbacks in perfecting their spacecraft.
Boeing’s vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, is still in development despite its unsuccessful test launch in December 2019. A second unmanned flight will be carried out this fall, but the veteran manufacturer may have a tough time overcoming SpaceX’s early lead.
It remains to be seen whether there’s room enough for two in civilian aerospace. Either way, SpaceX’s successful launch proves that the company is far more capable than early detractors believed.