Since the Space Shuttle program ended in July 2011, the United States has had no way to get its astronauts into Earth orbit besides paying for seats on the Russian Soyuz. In fact, when Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spaceplane VSS Unity reached an altitude of 51.4 miles in December 2018, it was technically the first U.S. spaceflight since the last Space Shuttle mission – and that’s only if you accept the U.S. Air Force’s official definition of space as beginning at an altitude of 50 miles (other countries define it as 100 kilometres, or 62 miles). But this year, one or two new means for astronauts to reach the International Space Station will hopefully be opened up – and early this Saturday, SpaceX is planning to take a big step towards that goal by launching an unmanned Crew Dragon on its first test flight into space.
With NASA still busy developing its own Orion spacecraft, the agency has been providing funding for external companies to develop their own spacecraft and service the ISS. Currently in the lead is SpaceX, which has been launching Dragon cargo spacecraft to the ISS since 2012; it is the upgraded model, the Crew Dragon, which is intended to carry astronauts. Meanwhile, Boeing are currently developing the CST-100 Starliner, whose first unmanned test is scheduled for April of this year.
The Crew Dragon will be launched by the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s reusable rocket which has already proven itself time and time again. Assuming that the spacecraft makes it to orbit safely, it will dock directly with the ISS (as opposed to previous Dragons, which were captured manually by the station’s robotic arm) and deliver cargo, before returning to Earth just short of a week later. If this flight is a success, the next step will be for SpaceX to test the abort system in flight, to ensure that astronauts can escape if anything goes wrong during launch (as occurred with the Soyuz back in October). After that, the Crew Dragon will finally carry astronauts – Space Shuttle veterans Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – in a flight currently pencilled in for July.
The Demonstration Mission 1 launch from Cape Canaveral is presently scheduled for Saturday 2nd March at 2:48am Eastern Time – pretty amenable for European viewers if you don’t mind getting up early on a Saturday, which I always do anyway. Here’s hoping for a good flight!