NASA and SpaceX put their most ambitious partnership into orbit

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes flight for the first time with the Crew Dragon aboard.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes flight for the first time with the Crew Dragon aboard.
Image: Reuters/Joe Rimkus Jr.
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A SpaceX capsule designed to carry astronauts for NASA has taken flight on an uncrewed test mission from Cape Canaveral, lifting with it the promise of NASA astronauts launching into space from American soil again.

The Dragon spacecraft, weighing just over 13 tons (11.8 metric tons), took off at 2:49am ET on a Falcon 9 rocket. It carried 400 lbs. of cargo for the International Space Station, a sensor-strapped test dummy named Ripley, and a small blue stuffed earth as a “super high tech zero-g indicator,” in the words of SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk.

Musk said that the spacecraft was performing well so far, successfully firing its thrusters, enabling its solar cells and lifting its nosecone in preparation for docking.

While the launch itself is a critical step, the mission still needs to successfully dock with the station, a maneuver planned for early in the morning of March 3, and then complete its return to earth with a parachute splashdown in the Atlantic on March 8. The biggest concern, according to Musk, is how the asymmetrical capsule will perform during its high-speed re-entry into earth’s atmosphere.

The test, a key moment for proving out NASA’s strategy of hiring private companies to design and operate spacecraft rather than performing the task itself, will pave the way for the potential flight of astronauts as soon as July. Boeing, the other contractor in the space agency’s commercial crew program, is expected to perform an uncrewed flight test of its Starliner capsule next month.

“Our goal here is to be one customer of many customers, driving down the cost of access to space, with a very robust marketplace for human spaceflight in low-earth orbit,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said ahead of the demonstration mission. Asked if he expected astronauts to take flight this year on one of the two spacecraft, he said “you can write in your article I’m 100% confident.”

The agency’s excitement around regaining some of the spaceflight capability lost with the end of the space shuttle program in 2011 was palpable as Bridenstine and the four astronauts scheduled to fly on the Dragon, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken, Mike Hopkins, and Victor Glover, spoke to reporters.

“When we first started, this program was just PowerPoint charts,” Hurley, who with Behnken will be the first astronauts in the spacecraft, said. “And now we’ve got a vehicle out on the pad.”

The astronauts watched the launch, along with Musk, from a historic Kennedy Space Center control room used during the moon launch. Next, they’ll hustle to cross-country flights to SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles, where they will observe docking operations in the company’s main flight control center. This will help them understand what their ground support teams are seeing and doing when they are on top of the rocket.

“From our standpoint, this is what you want to see: the team hitting its stride as we get ready to put people on these things,” Hurley said afterward.

Behnken and Hurley are both former military test pilots and experienced shuttle astronauts who have been involved in the design of these capsules for several years now. With a potential return to space on their calendar, they are preparing their families for the experience—and both are married to astronauts, which Hurley says “makes things easier, they understand what we are working towards. The hardest job is not your job, it’s the spouse watching you launch into space.”

Behnken, who didn’t have children during his first space launches but now has a four-year old son, talked about bringing his family to watch the recent launch of a SpaceX rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station. “He had not been to a rocket launch before, and I didn’t want his first one to be his father launching into space,” the veteran astronaut said.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is a remarkably different design than previous NASA spacecraft. It’s a simpler vehicle than the space shuttle; the former workhorse of the space program boasted some 2,000 switches and fuses, while the Dragon has just 30 physical buttons, with the rest of its operations controlled by touchscreen—but almost all of the flight operations are automated.

Bridenstine says some of this innovation is due to NASA’s insistence on public-private partnerships.

“We have one of our providers who developed a crew capsule that looks as much as possible like the inside of the cabin of a commercial airliner, a development that took place not because NASA has a requirement, but because NASA is a customer in a robust commercial marketplace of the future,” he said. “They are preparing for a future where customers are not NASA. They could be foreign sovereign countries, they could be individuals that want to go to space.”

Musk said his company would attempt to recruit paying passengers once they had proven the vehicle safe and reliable for NASA, noting that while only the Russan Soyuz spacecraft has carried paying tourists to the ISS, “it would be pretty cool if people went to the space station on an American vehicle as well.”

Bridenstine, a member of Congress before being tapped by president Donald Trump to lead the space agency, has long been an advocate of public-private partnerships. With his agency tasked to operate in low-earth orbit, return to the moon and lay the groundwork for future exploration on Mars, he says that “if we commercialize our activities in low-earth orbit, we can drive down the cost and we can spend our resources provided by the taxpayer to do things for which there is not yet a commercial marketplace.”

For all the confidence on display, NASA officials and astronauts were not hesitant to admit that this vehicle still needs to complete the rest of its test and qualification campaign before it can safely carry people. Beyond the rest of this mission, SpaceX will also be performing an in-flight abort test to show that its capsule can rescue astronauts in the event of a rocket failure, along with further demonstrations to reassure the space agency about the reliability of its fueling procedures and the helium bottles it uses to pressure the rocket’s engines.

Those concerns, the agency says, are a normal part of the shakedown process for a vehicle like this. And despite his 100% confidence, Bridenstine says that safety comes first.

“We are not in a space race,” he said. “We have no requirement to go early.”