SpaceX launches two astronauts to orbit, igniting new spaceflight era.
The United States opened a new era of human space travel on Saturday as a private company for the first time launched astronauts into orbit, nearly a decade after the government retired the storied space shuttle program in the aftermath of national tragedy.
Two American astronauts lifted off at 3:22 p.m. from a familiar setting, the same Florida launchpad that once served Apollo missions and the space shuttles. But the rocket and capsule that lofted them out of the atmosphere were a new sight for many — built and operated not by NASA but SpaceX, the company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk to pursue his dream of sending colonists to Mars.
Crowds of spectators including President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watched and cheered as the countdown ticked to zero, and the engines of a Falcon 9 rocket roared to life.
Rising slowly at first, the rocket then shot like a sleek, silvery javelin into cloudy, humid skies, three days after Florida’s weather had precluded an earlier launch attempt.
It was a moment of triumph and perhaps nostalgia for the country, a welcome reminder of America’s global pre-eminence in science, technological innovation and private enterprise at a time its prospects and ambitions have been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty and political strife. Millions around the world watched the launch online and on television, many from self-imposed quarantine in their homes.
The Falcon 9 carried a Crew Dragon capsule, which was scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.
Aboard are two veterans of the astronauts corps, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas O. Hurley. Each is married to another astronaut — Mr. Behnken to Megan McArthur and Mr. Hurley to Karen Nyberg. NASA selected the two men along with a group of their colleagues to be the first customers of space capsules built by private companies.
It was the first launch of NASA astronauts from the United States since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. In the years since, NASA has paid Russia’s space program to transport its astronauts to the space station. And with this success, NASA, to its own delight, has begun ceding this task to SpaceX and other companies, and it opens new possibilities for entrepreneurs looking to make money off the planet.
As a bonus for the good start to the mission, the booster stage successfully landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic, now a routine feat for SpaceX.
They both have backgrounds as military test pilots and have each flown twice previously on space shuttle missions, although this is the first time they have worked together on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the space shuttle’s final mission in 2011.
In 2015, they were among the astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the commercial space vehicles that the companies were developing. In 2018, they were assigned to the first SpaceX flight.
Saturday’s launch preparations began with the astronauts donning their spacesuits with the assistance of SpaceX technicians. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, and Jim Morhard, the deputy administrator, visited them in the suit-up room. Each kept a social distance and wore a surgical mask, and Mr. Bridenstine posed with the astronauts for a selfie.
Just after noon, the astronauts were seen off by their families ahead of their drive to the launchpad. Mr. Behnken asked his son, Theodore, “Are you going to listen to mommy and make her life easy,” referring to his wife, Megan McArthur, a fellow astronaut. The six-year-old replied, “Let’s light this candle!”
Within the hour, they had boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and started the hours of procedures they must complete before the launch attempt.
What are they flying in?
SpaceX has never taken people to space before. Its Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo, but not people, to the space station.
Crew Dragon has space for up to seven people but will have only four seats for NASA missions. If this launch succeeds, it will ferry four astronauts to the space station later in the year.
What about those spacesuits they’re wearing?
Michael Bay, the director of the 1998 cosmic disaster movie “Armageddon,” once gave an interview discussing the worst crisis in the making of the film.
“Three weeks before our first day of principal photography, I went to see the spacesuits,” he said. “They looked like an Adidas jogging suit on a rack. That’s where I almost killed myself.” Because, he said, if you don’t have “cool” spacesuits, the whole movie is sunk.
Apparently Elon Musk ascribes to the same school of thought.
Or so it seems judging from the white and black launch and re-entry suits the astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will wear when they hop into their white and black Tesla and ride to the Cape Canaveral launchpad to climb into the white and black SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for the maiden voyage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.
After all, when it comes to capturing the public imagination around space travel, style matters.
“Suits are the charismatic mammals of space hardware,” said Cathleen Lewis, the curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. “They evoke the human experience.”
Actually, what the SpaceX suits evoke most of all is James Bond’s tuxedo if it were redesigned by Tony Stark as an upgrade for James T. Kirk’s next big adventure. Streamlined, graphic and articulated, the suits are more a part of the pop culture-comic con continuum of space style than the NASA continuum.
Despite warnings from NASA to stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus, about 150,000 people came out to view the launch on Wednesday in the parts of Florida around Kennedy Space Center. Peter Cranis, the executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, which made that estimate, said he’s expecting another few hundred thousand viewers this weekend.
All the parking spots at the beach access roads in Cape Canaveral were full by 9 a.m. on Saturday, and not many spectators at Space View Park — a popular viewing area — were social distancing or wearing masks, Florida Today reported. And less than half an hour before lift off, the crowd had grown to nearly twice the size of Wednesday’s scrubbed launch, according to the newspaper.
Local government officials also anticipated Saturday’s crowds will swamp Wednesday’s numbers.
“Thousands, tens of thousands, heck, hundreds of thousands? There’s just no way to put a number to it,” said Don Walker, the communications director of Brevard County Emergency Management.
The Kennedy Space Center was not open to the public on Wednesday, but its visitor center was partially opened on Saturday.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said guests were to observe social distancing guidelines on the agency’s grounds.
“What we expect is that when people come here, they follow the guidance of the governor.”
Following scenes of packed bridges on Wednesday, Mr. Walker said there will be increased law enforcement presence this weekend.
“While there’s no real way to enforce it, we have asked people through media interviews, press releases, social media, you name it, to do their best to follow C.D.C. social distancing recommendations,” he said.
Ben Malik, the mayor of Cocoa Beach, south of the space center, said his town’s beach was packed on Wednesday and that its hotels are fully booked this weekend.
“There was little to no social distancing on Wednesday,” Mr. Malik said. “It was a little scary. At this point, you’d have to have thousands and thousands of police officers and that’s not physically possible.”
What have the astronauts been doing since Wednesday?
They have been staying in quarantine at the crew quarters at the Kennedy Space Center. It has been used for astronauts preparing for missions since the 1960s, taking up about 26,000 square feet and 23 bedrooms — not only for astronauts, but also for flight surgeons and support personnel.
The crew quarters includes a kitchen, dining room, lounge, gym, two conference rooms, two laundry rooms and three medical exam rooms.
The purpose of quarantine is not to keep the astronauts locked up, but to limit contacts with people who could pass on germs. At a news conference on Friday, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said they might go to a building closer to the ocean known as the Beach House.
“They might spend a little time at the Beach House,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “They started a new tradition of launching rockets from the beach, at the Beach House before a big launch. And so I would imagine they’re probably getting some downtime.”
On Tuesday, the day before the first launch attempt, Mr. Behnken posted on Twitter a summary of some of their activities.
When will the astronauts arrive at the space station?
The Crew Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station 19 hours after launch on Sunday, at about 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. During their trip, the astronauts will test to test how the spacecraft flies and verify that the systems are performing as designed. Unless something goes wrong, the Crew Dragon’s computers usually handle all of the maneuvering and docking procedures.
The astronauts also said they planned to test out the capsule’s toilet.
How long will they stay and what will they do?
Originally, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley were scheduled to stay at the space station for only two weeks. But those plans were made when NASA thought the mission would fly in 2019. With delays in the development of Crew Dragon and another capsule, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA ran out of available seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule to the space station. It now finds itself short-handed there, with only one NASA astronaut, Christopher J. Cassidy, currently on the station with two Russian counterparts.
Thus, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley are now expected to stay at the station at least a month to help Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Behnken has trained to perform spacewalks, and Mr. Hurley took refresher classes on how to operate the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.
Why is NASA working with SpaceX on this?
To replace the shuttles, NASA decided to turn to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — in essence to produce the rental-car equivalent of spacecraft. NASA would then buy tickets aboard its capsules for the rides to space.
This program has turned out much less expensive than if NASA had developed its own replacement spacecraft, although the capsules have faced many delays on the way to being ready to launch.
NASA under the Trump administration is also hoping to spur more commercial use of the space station, for purposes including tourism. Although the tickets would be expensive, passengers can buy rides to orbit aboard SpaceX’s capsule and may purchase seats on the Boeing capsule once it is ready to fly.
The decision to retire the space shuttles was made in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia shuttle a year earlier. The shuttles were needed to complete construction of the space station. But their engines, heat tiles and aerodynamics made them complex to fly and maintain. Those factors, and the expense of continuing to operate them, led the Bush administration to decide that the money should be directed instead to sending astronauts back to the moon in a program called Constellation.
The space station was completed in 2011, and the shuttles were retired. The Obama administration, however, decided that Constellation was too expensive and canceled it. It then started the commercial crew program that led to the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner.
How have NASA astronauts been getting to the space station?
Astronauts have been living on the International Space Station continuously for almost 20 years. After the retirement of the shuttles, NASA has had to rely on the Russians for the astronaut transportation, paying tens of millions of dollars for each seat aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.
The Soyuz is based on a model that was first built by the Soviet space program in the 1960s, and the capsule typically flies to and from the space station several times each year. With the start of commercial crew missions, the number of Soyuz flights will likely fall. It has proved a reliable vehicle for human spaceflight, although two astronauts had to make a safe emergency landing in 2018 because of a problem with one of the rocket’s boosters during takeoff.
NASA astronauts are likely to continue flying on Soyuz launches — and Russian astronauts on SpaceX and Boeing missions — so that the crew members are familiar with all of the different systems. However, NASA would then not be paying for Soyuz trips, but instead trading a seat on a Boeing or SpaceX craft for one on a Soyuz.
Does Crew Dragon have an escape system?
The Crew Dragon possesses powerful engines called SuperDracos that can power the capsule away from the Falcon 9 rocket in case of an emergency. The Dragon then parachutes into the ocean.
In an uncrewed test in January, SpaceX demonstrated that this escape system works even at the point of the flight where the pressure of air pushing down on the rocket is greatest.
Reporting was contributed by Kenneth Chang, Mariel Padilla, Vanessa Friedman and Michael Roston.