SpaceX Crew-1 Launch Officially Starts New Era in Commercial Human Space Travel

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi onboard, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA)

SpaceX's successful launch of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station on Sunday, Nov. 15 was a significant milestone for the company, but only the beginning of a six-month process where key technology and physiological aspects of future commercial human space travel will be evaluated.

The historic launch occurred at 7:27 p.m. EST from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center featuring NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi onboard.

"This journey began really in August 2006 when we first started working on Dragon together," SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference following the launch of Crew Dragon into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). "Falcon 9 looked beautiful, I don't have any specifics on any anomalies that we had which is great, we'll get more data as we go. Dragon was dropped off roughly 12 minutes into the mission into a beautiful orbit, the machine is operating just fine, all systems nominal."

Shotwell said SpaceX will look to fly up to seven more Crew Dragon missions over the next 15 months. The spacecraft, named Resilience is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers to and from Earth orbit, and has a total LEO endurance of 210 days, according to SpaceX.

Resilience is equipped with 16 "Draco thrusters" that are capable of attitude control as well as orienting the spacecraft throughout the mission. Each individual thruster can generate up to 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space. An assortment of eight individual SuperDraco engines serves as an emergency backup system capable of providing power in the event of an emergency.

Dragon has already completed 22 flights to and from the ISS. Early on during the launch on Sunday, SpaceX mission control center's reported an issue with the Dragon's thermal control system. When asked about it, the issue was not seen as a major anomaly by officials involved.

Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA downplayed the significance of the thermal control system alert during a media question and answer session following the launch.

"We have a lot of redundancy in the system, the team went in and cleared the faults and both legs are back up and running,” Lueders said. “It's not an unusual thing to happen when systems are started up like this we go through the launch and hang out for that first hour of dragon activation it goes through and checks out all the different parts of it and gives us a good health check for the way the spacecraft is working. Dragon is flying beautifully right now."

The Crew Dragon's cockpit control panel features touchscreen displays where the astronauts can manually control the spacecraft if they need to. SpaceX provides an online interactive simulator to give a sense of what its like on the inside. (SpaceX)

Among the historic firsts achieved by SpaceX on the flight include the first NASA-certified commercial system designed for crew transportation, officially moving Dragon from development to regular commercial human-carrying spaceflights. Additionally, it was the first FAA-licensed human orbital spaceflight launch.

"This is a tough business to break into," Shotwell said, reacting to a question about when to expect competitors to SpaceX in human spaceflight to emerge. "I wouldn't expect any in the next five years, but hopefully within 10, they'll be plenty of folks doing this kind of work to make it more accessible to more folks.”

SpaceX plans on performing their Crew-2 mission within four to five months, with Crew-3 to follow six months later, according to Shotwell. The company also has plans to perform a commercial mission to the ISS with Axiom Space, a Houston-based aerospace manufacturer and provider of orbital spaceflight services.

Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom Space participated in a virtual panel discussion on Oct. 13 for the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) where he confirmed his company expects to be able to perform a commercial space mission in partnership with SpaceX by the fourth quarter of 2021.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that Sunday's SpaceX flight was also historic because it helps transition NASA into a customer of space travel on U.S.-made spacecraft after spending the last decade reliant on Russia's Soyuz for trips back and forth to the ISS.

"We're now going into operational missions that are commercial in nature, where NASA is a customer," Bridenstine said. "Our goal has been and will be to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low earth orbit. But we also want to have numerous providers that are competing on cost and innovation and safety, we've seen amazing work from SpaceX already there's more coming from Boeing. I think this ecosystem, this very virtuous cycle of continuous development is going to pay benefits to the American taxpayer and space exploration."

During their stay on the orbiting laboratory, Crew-1’s astronauts expect to see a range of uncrewed spacecraft flights to the ISS including SpaceX’s next-generation cargo Dragon spacecraft, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner making an uncrewed flight test to the station. They also will conduct a variety of spacewalks and welcome crews of the Russian Soyuz vehicle and the next SpaceX Crew Dragon in 2021, according to NASA.

Bridenstine and the other officials on the media question and answer session said they anticipate Resilience making an autonomous dock onboard the ISS at 11 p.m. EST on Monday, Nov. 16. Once on board, the astronauts expect to perform a number of scientific experiments and research activities including an evaluation of what type of food can be grown in space. They have also been tasked with collecting their own biological samples to help scientists on the ground study how dietary changes impact the body in space.

Seven splashdown sites have been established along Florida's east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico for the return of Crew-1 to Earth. SpaceX is providing live coverage of the mission on its website.

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