SpaceX launch kicks off regular commercial flights into orbit

With the Crew-1 mission on its way to the ISS, the U.S. regains the ability to send astronauts on routine missions to space after 9 years.

Published 16 Nov 2020, 10:15 GMT
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew-1 mission lifts off the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy ...

A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew-1 mission lifts off the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Photograph by Michael Seeley, National Geographic

Just before 7:30 p.m. U.S. eastern time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered through the nighttime sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station. It churned through the darkness and soared out of view. Twelve minutes later, the Dragon capsule on the rocket’s nose disconnected from its fiery ride and began the 27.5-hour journey to the space station.

“That was one heck of a ride,” mission commander Mike Hopkins said after Dragon reached orbit.

Yesterday's launch marks the first operational trip into orbit for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which NASA certified for flight after a successful test mission carried two astronauts to the ISS in May. Called Crew-1, the mission will keep the astronauts aboard the ISS for six months. In May 2021, Crew Dragon will return to Earth by parachuting into the sea off Florida’s coast.

Photograph by Gregg Newton, AFP via Getty Images

“This is another historic moment,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, said in a press conference ahead of the launch. “We’re launching four astronauts ... to do very real and serious work on behalf of the American people and on behalf of humanity at large.”

The Crew-1 mission was delayed for several weeks after an engine malfunction scrubbed an October Falcon 9 launch attempt carrying a U.S. Space Force GPS satellite. Teams analysing the problem worked out that clogged ports on the rocket’s engines caused an automatic last-second abort, and the satellite successfully launched earlier this month after the affected engines were replaced. Two engines on the Crew-1 rocket with the same issue were also replaced.

Now that it’s off the ground, Crew-1 marks a number of firsts: It’s the first long-duration spaceflight to launch from the United States in nine years, and NASA’s first operational human flight after nearly a decade of relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts into orbit. Mission pilot Victor Glover is the first Black astronaut to embark on an extended stay in orbit, and flight engineer Shannon Walker is the first woman to fly to orbit in a commercial spacecraft.

“I expect to be the first of many,” Walker says of her flight. “And I look forward to the day that we don't have to note such events.”

"It is something to be celebrated once we accomplish it,” Glover adds. “I am honoured to be in this position.”

A lively crew

NASA tapped Hopkins to command the historic Crew-1 mission, a veteran astronaut who flew to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2013. And while Glover is a rookie space flyer, he’s also a combat veteran and Navy test pilot. “This may be his first flight, but if anybody was on the outside looking in, they'd never know it,” Hopkins says of Glover.

“It’s great to be the rookie, because I know I can ask them about anything, and I’m going to get three really great opinions,” Glover says. Somewhat ironically, though, Glover’s nickname is Ike, or really, IKE, an acronym for “I Know Everything.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft is seen as it is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Launch Complex 39A during preparations for the Crew-1 mission, Monday, November 9, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Photograph by Joel Kowsky, NASA

“It’s a reminder to never pass up an opportunity to keep my mouth shut, and I’ll start now,” Glover said of the moniker during a press briefing with reporters in October.

Rounding out the crew are NASA astronaut Walker, who flew on a Soyuz mission to the ISS in 2010, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, who’s flown aboard both NASA’s space shuttle and the Soyuz spacecraft.

Late Monday evening, the crew will rendezvous with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov, who arrived at the space station in October.

With that many folks in orbit, living space will be tight—the space station only has sleeping quarters for six crew members, so Hopkins volunteered to make do with temporary sleeping arrangements. That might mean snoozing in the docked Dragon capsule, which the crew has named Resilience in honor of the SpaceX and NASA teams that managed to get the mission ready for launch in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Oftentimes in the shuttle days, the commander usually slept in the cockpit,” Hopkins says. “If any of us were going to sleep there, I felt like it should have been me.”

Noguchi is the most experienced of the Crew-1 astronauts, having logged 177 days in space on two missions, including NASA’s first shuttle flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster. He has a dry sense of humour, noting that his biggest pet peeve is “people who don’t use turn signals,” his guilty pleasure is “sleeping during meetings,” and he loves sushi so much he once made a salmon hand roll in space.

For her part, Walker says she’s primarily looking forward to returning to life in orbit, having already spent six months on the space station in 2010.

“It’s such a fantastic place to be,” she says, adding that she’s most excited about revisiting the cupola—a glass-enclosed dome attached to the station’s Tranquility module. “Having the opportunity to look out this wonderful 360-degree-view, down at the Earth—and at the rest of the universe—is pretty special,” says Walker, who has a doctoral degree in space physics.

(See eerily deserted pictures of the ISS.)

When she spoke to National Geographic ahead of the launch, Walker said she wasn’t particularly anxious about any part of the Crew-1 mission. “I don’t really have a lot of anxieties,” she said. “I mean, gee, I have to make sure our taxes get done while I’m up there. That’s going to be a little bit challenging.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft is seen on the launch pad as preparations continued for the Crew-1 mission, Tuesday, November 10, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Photograph by Joel Kowsky, NASA

To get ready for this trip into orbit, Hopkins and Glover trained together at both NASA and SpaceX facilities, logging hundreds of hours piloting the Dragon in flight simulators. “You kind of know what the other person is thinking—concerns, thoughts, you can read the body language,” Hopkins says.

But early on, he was surprised by Glover’s sartorial pizzazz—specifically, a proclivity for snazzy socks.“Ike takes off his shoes and he had these very colourful socks,” Hopkins recalls. “It kind of became, OK, now I gotta step up my game on socks.”

The entire crew will now be bringing playful footwear into orbit, where astronauts generally just wear socks as they float through the station. “I think all of us, our whole crew, has kind of made a thing out of socks and not just matching polo shirts and crew shirts,” says Glover, who is particularly excited to experience the wonders of spaceflight for the first time.

“Everything I get to do on this mission will be the first time, and I really want to savour each and every moment,” he says. That includes crossing the von Kármán line, the boundary at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) marking the end of Earth’s atmosphere and the beginning of outer space. Glover says he gets goosebumps just crossing the boundary into space in simulators. “I’ll be the only person in the vehicle who hit that line for the first time.”

The crew arrives at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on November 8, 2020, comprised of NASA astronauts Shannon Walker (left), Victor Glover (center, left), and Mike Hopkins (center, right), and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi (right).

Photograph by Michael Seeley, National Geographic

Half a year living in orbit

Once they’re on the space station, the crew will start helping out with maintenance, spacewalking outside the ISS, and conducting science experiments. That research includes looking at how astronauts’ brains and hearts respond to the space environment, growing radishes in orbit, testing a space suit with new insulating technologies, and studying how different diets affect astronaut health.

At the end of six months, the Crew-1 astronauts will depart the station as NASA’s Crew-2 mission arrives. It’s not clear what the situation on Earth will be at that point, given ongoing civil unrest, shifts in world leadership, and the viral pandemic. But Hopkins hopes that their launch will serve as some good news for people during trying times.

“I think this is something people can look to for inspiration and maybe just a little bit of a distraction,” he says.

“I agree with Mike, totally,” Glover says. “The good news stories—you can’t have too many of those right now.”

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