SpaceX’s Dragon Crew-1 capsule, with 4 astronauts aboard, on way to ISS

The seemingly seamless countdown and launch of four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday came with a spectacular evening liftoff just days after the company’s Dragon capsule became the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight.

But the road to this point was long and at times tortured.

NASA first entrusted the private sector to fly cargo and supplies to the space station in 2008 under the George W. Bush administration, awarding contracts to SpaceX and a company that was then known as Orbital Sciences and has since been subsumed by Northrup Grumman.

Allowing the private sector to fly missions was a controversial decision, and many critics at the time said it was unthinkable that NASA would allow the private sector to fly astronauts. But that changed under the Obama administration, which awarded “commercial crew program” contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, worth $6.8 billion combined, to build spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the station.

Initially, both companies struggled to meet NASA’s rigorous standards for human spaceflight and suffered setbacks that delayed the program for years. SpaceX lost two of its Falcon 9 rockets in explosions, one during a cargo resupply mission, the other while being fueled on the launchpad. And one of its Crew Dragon spacecraft also blew up on a test stand.

No one was injured in any of those accidents, and the company pressed on, finding solutions to the problems while working alongside NASA to make adjustments as problems were detected. That included swapping out two engines on the Falcon 9 that flew Sunday after technicians discovered that some vent holes were clogged.

SpaceX earned that designation and the right to undertake what NASA hopes will be regular missions to the space station and back after it completed a test flight of two astronauts earlier this year. That May launch was the first of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, forcing the United States to rely on Russia for flights to orbit for nearly a decade.

With Sunday’s launch, NASA took another step toward a new era in human spaceflight in which private companies partner with the government to build and design spacecraft and rockets. And it marked a coming-of-age moment for SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk that was once viewed as a maverick start-up but is now one of the space industry’s stalwarts and one of NASA’s most significant partners.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited its nine engines and lifted off at 7:27 p.m. Eastern time from launchpad 39A, the historic swath of space real estate that hoisted the crew of Apollo 11 — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — to the moon in 1969, as well as many space shuttle missions.

The launch was punctuated less than 10 minutes later, when the rocket booster returned to Earth and landed on a ship at sea so that it could be reused on another mission.

On board the SpaceX spacecraft were three NASA astronauts, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as a Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi. Though the space shuttle was capable of flying as many as eight people, Sunday’s flight was the first time four astronauts have ever flown in a capsule.

The crew will stay on board the space station for about six months, joining American Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. The mission comes as NASA and its international partners this month are celebrating 20 years of continuous human presence on the space station, an orbiting laboratory about 250 miles above Earth.

Sunday’s flight put SpaceX’s Dragon on a trajectory to reach the space station at about 11 p.m. Monday. If all goes well, the spacecraft will proceed slowly, using its onboard navigation to autonomously park itself on one of the station’s ports, while whizzing around Earth in orbit, traveling 17,500 mph.

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