On 21st July 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre, bringing the 135th and final Space Shuttle mission to a close, and leaving the United States with no way to send astronauts into orbit aside from purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz. This Wednesday, if all goes well, that is finally going to change. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be taking off from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, carrying human beings for the first time.
The Crew Dragon’s development is part of the Commercial Crew Program, whereby private companies – specifically SpaceX and Boeing – have developed spacecraft to carry US astronauts to the International Space Station on NASA’s behalf. Boeing’s spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, made its first test flight in December 2019: it both reached space and returned to Earth safely, but failed to enter the correct orbit to rendezvous with the ISS. SpaceX, meanwhile, has been successfully sending unmanned cargo vessels to the ISS since 2012. In March 2019, the Crew Dragon made its first orbital test flight, Demo-1, which couldn’t have gone more smoothly: the spacecraft, carrying a dummy named Ripley and a plush toy Earth, docked with the ISS and then splashed down in one piece.
Unfortunately, the already-delayed program suffered a major setback the following month, when the Demo-1 spacecraft was destroyed in an explosion while testing its abort system. There would be no crewed launch in 2019, but following a successful in-flight abort test in January, SpaceX is at last ready to go. Onboard the Crew Dragon will be astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both of whom have two Space Shuttle missions under their belts. (Hurley, incidentally, was the pilot of the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135.) Hurley and Behnken are expected to reach the ISS the day after launch, and remain there for up to three months.
This is obviously very exciting: it marks another big step forward in space development, and it’s the first time within my own lifetime that the United States are launching a new crewed spacecraft. But I expect I’ll be feeling nervous watching the launch too. The safety systems have undergone plenty of tests, and the Falcon 9 rocket has an excellent reliability record – but spacecraft always carries an element of risk, and watching this launch with the knowledge that lives are on the line is going to be a little tense.
Launch is scheduled for 4:33pm EDT – that’s 9:33pm in the UK. Shortly after launch, it may be possible to see the Crew Dragon passing overhead from the UK, west to east – I’m not sure if it’ll be too light at my own latitude, but you never know.
Good luck to SpaceX and Crew Dragon Demo-2!