Crew Dragon’s successful launch prompts future manned missions .
On March 8, the first flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon landed 200 miles off the coast of Florida at 8:45 a.m. Demo-1, as the flight was called, was launched on March 2 and spent a short, five-day visit at the International Space Station (ISS) before returning back to Earth.
The shuttle was unmanned at the time of the launch, but after a successful touchdown, SpaceX moved closer to a manned mission to the ISS, which would be the first time American astronauts would fly a U.S.-made spacecraft off an American launchpad since 2011.
The ship was launched from Pad 39A at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Kennedy Space Center, a notorious launch pad used for the Apollo lunar missions and several manned shuttle missions. However, all of these missions have been government funded and run.
John Logsdon, professor emeritus of space policy at The George Washington University, took note of how big yet small this accomplishment is.
“This is a modest step toward flying in space commercially, but you have to underline the word ‘modest,’” Logsdon said, according to Scientific American.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon is technically also a government-run project, although it aims to pave the way for privatized space travel. Both SpaceX and Boeing (which is in friendly competition with SpaceX and is rapidly approaching the test launch of its own spacecraft: the CST-100 Starliner) have contracts with NASA and are part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) which works with partners to provide access to the ISS and beyond. Currently, SpaceX and Boeing are the only two partners.
CCP was a response to a growing need for collaboration after the NASA Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. The ultimate goal of the SpaceX launch and CCP endeavors is to increase American access to space. During the Cold War space race, NASA felt strong competitive pressure to take risks and move space exploration forward. Funding flowed and overflowed, and projects would often go over budget. This was considered acceptable because space travel was seen as a matter of freedom and national security. After winning the race, these same projects became difficult to justify, despite cutting costs.
This decreased support stifled innovation and shortened NASA’s reach into space once again.
In an attempt to lengthen this reach, or at least sustain it, SpaceX began working on the Crew Dragon project in 2009.
The completed Crew Dragon was 27 feet long and capable of fitting a crew of seven. On its inaugural flight, it carried around 400 pounds of cargo and was outfitted with reusable components in line with SpaceX’s economical business model.
Although the Crew Dragon did not carry any live humans, it did carry equipment, supplies and an astronaut-sized dummy equipped with data sensors.
Astronauts at the ISS got a chance to get comfortable with the Dragon’s procedures before sending the ship on its way just a few short days after its arrival. The ship launched and landed on schedule, and according to Benji Reed, the director of crew mission management at SpaceX, its re-entry was near perfect.
“It was right on time, the way that we expected it to be. It was beautiful,” Reed said, according to Teslarati.
Jim Bridenstine, the adminstrator of NASA, commented on the implications of this landing. “Today’s successful re-entry and recovery of the Crew Dragon capsule after its first mission to the International Space Station marked another important milestone in the future of human spaceflight,” Bridenstine said in a press release.
After this first successful flight, two NASA astronauts, Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley, are on schedule to fly the next mission this July.