SpaceX Mission Delivers Astronauts Into Orbit

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Falcon 9 booster lifts off from Kennedy Space Centrer in Florida to take Crew Dragon capsule into orbit. Image credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carries two NASA astronauts to International Space Station in historic first for a private company

SpaceX and NASA have made history with the first manned flight to the International Space Station carried out by a private company.

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster rocket, carrying its Crew Dragon capsule, went ahead as planned on Saturday at 15:22 EDT (19:22 GMT / 20:22 BST), following the cancellation of an earlier attempt due to inclement weather.

Falcon 9 booster lifts off from Kennedy Space Centrer in Florida to take Crew Dragon capsule into orbit. Image credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 booster lifts off from Kennedy Space Centrer in Florida to take Crew Dragon capsule into orbit. Image credit: SpaceX

It was the first launch to the ISS from US soil since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011 and the first time NASA has contracted a private firm to carry astronauts to the station.

NASA has also contracted Boeing to provide orbital flights.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken seated in the Crew Dragon capsule. Image credit: SpaceX
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken seated in the Crew Dragon capsule. Image credit: SpaceX

Manned flight

Experienced astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lifted off from the 39A launch complex at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, originally built for the Apollo programme that carried astronauts to the moon.

The same pad was later modified for Space Shuttle launches.

After two and a half minutes the lower stage of the Falcon 9 booster separated and returned to land on a drone ship in the Atlantic, and after six more minutes the Crew Dragon capsule arrived in orbit.

Falcon 9 booster returns to land on autonomous barge. Image credit: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 booster returns to land on an autonomous barge in the Atlantic. Image credit: SpaceX

The capsule docked with the International Space Station 19 hours later, on Sunday.

During the interim Hurley and Behnken carried out equipment checks and tested the capsule’s backup manual control systems.

The capsule does not include a control stick, with all commands being entered via touchscreen.

Crew Dragon separates from Falcon 9’s second stage. Image credit: SpaceX
Crew Dragon separates from Falcon 9’s second stage. Image credit: SpaceX

Crew Dragon is primarily designed to be autonomous, with manual controls being in place solely as a failsafe.

Hurley and Behnken are thought to be set for a stay of between one and four months at the station.

View from Crew Dragon as it enters orbit. Image credit: SpaceX
View from Crew Dragon as it enters orbit. Image credit: SpaceX

Mission plans

SpaceX has contracted with NASA to fly a further six operational crew missions to the ISS, the first of which is scheduled for the end of August, with a crew of four.

NASA retired its Space Shuttle programme nine years ago in order to focus its resources on longer-range manned missions to the Moon or Mars.

Map showing Crew Dragon's flight path toward the International Space Station. Image credit: SpaceX
Map showing Crew Dragon’s flight path toward the International Space Station. Image credit: SpaceX

Since that time it has been relying on Russia’s Soyuz launchers to deliver astronauts to the space station.

SpaceX has carried out 85 successful test launches of its Falcon 9 family of rockets since 2010.

Map showing Crew Dragon's flight path to dock with the International Space Station. Image credit: SpaceX
Map showing Crew Dragon’s flight path to dock with the International Space Station. Image credit: SpaceX

The company uses the Cargo Dragon variant of the Dragon capsule to lift freight into orbit.

It has also embarked on an ambitious satellite-based broadband internet access programme called Starlink.

Crew Dragon prepares to dock with the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA
Crew Dragon prepares to dock with the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into orbit in March, bringing the total to 182.

It intends to launch 24 Starlink missions this year in order to reach its target of around 12,000 and eventually 42,000 satellites in orbit.

Behnken (left) and Hurley are greeted by NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner as they enter the ISS.  Image credit: NASA
Behnken (left) and Hurley are greeted by NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner as they enter the ISS. Image credit: NASA

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