The United States on Saturday ushered in a new era of space travel by launching astronauts into orbit for the first time by a private company.
The two American astronauts lifted off at 3:22 p.m. (10:22 p.m. ET) from the Florida launch pad that once served the Apollo missions and space shuttles. But the rocket and the astronaut capsule were not created and launched by NASA, but by SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk to fulfill his dream of sending colonists to Mars.
On board the capsule are two veteran astronauts: Robert L. Behnken and Douglas O. Hurley (by the way, both wives are also astronauts). They have extensive experience as military test pilots, having each flown spacecraft twice (Hurley was on the last mission of the US Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011).
In 2015, they were among the astronauts selected to work with Boeing and SpaceX on commercial spacecraft. In 2018, they were assigned to an experimental SpaceX flight.
This was the first launch of NASA astronauts in the US since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Over the past years, Russia has delivered American astronauts to the ISS using its outdated modifications of Soyuz rockets, and NASA had to pay decent sums for this, because there was no alternative. Now NASA can outsource this task to SpaceX and other companies, opening up new opportunities for the commercial sector, diversifying risk, and lowering the cost of space travel.
As a bonus for a good start to the mission, SpaceX’s reusable launch vehicle has already successfully landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic.
Features of cooperation between state and commercial structures
The commercial program (of which this launch was a part) was launched under President Barack Obama in 2011. At first, she met with fierce resistance and distrust from members of Congress and cut funding.
The program itself was modeled after NASA’s Commercial Cargo program and involved working with SpaceX and others (during the George W. Bush presidency) to develop cheaper capsules to send cargo to the International Space Station.
Thus, the policies that led to the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon are the result of a succession of three US presidents.
Where and why?
SpaceX has never taken humans into space. Her Crew Dragon is a lollipop-shaped capsule – an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original DragonX capsule, which has been used many times to transport cargo (but not people) to the space station.
The crew of the Dragon can accommodate up to seven people, but only four seats will be allocated for NASA missions. If all stages of the flight are successful, then on the next mission it will deliver four astronauts to the ISS at the end of 2020.
The capsule containing Behnken and Hurley remained unnamed until it entered orbit. On Saturday evening, the astronauts named her “Endeavour” – after the British naval research vessel under the command of James Cook.
The Crew Dragon crew is due to arrive at the International Space Station 19 hours after launch, on Sunday around 10:30 am ET (5:27 pm ET). During the flight, the astronauts will check how the spacecraft flies, test the operation of all systems and the operation of the toilet :).
Initially, “commercial” astronauts were supposed to stay on the ISS for only two weeks. But later this period was extended to 110 days. Return to Earth they are also on Crew Dragon.