Nearly half a decade and millions of hours of work have finally paid off after SpaceX’s Crew Dragon pulled off a flawless orbital debut, launching atop the first crew-rated Falcon 9 and docking with the International Space Station (ISS) a little over 24 hours later.
For what CEO Elon Musk described as a spacecraft with barely a part shared with the company’s already operational Cargo Dragon, such an unremarkable (in terms of surprises) launch debut is a massive achievement that speaks directly to the success of the NASA-SpaceX partnership and the exhaustive design, testing, and optimization directed at Crew Dragon. Having now completed two major trials – launch and docking – for DM-1, the spacecraft’s third and final hurdle will occur on March 8th when it attempts to safely return to Earth.
SpaceX team in Hawthorne control, Dragon docked to Station above pic.twitter.com/JUWkOrWjsH
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 3, 2019
Beginning around 3:30 am and lasting til 10:45 am EST (08:30-15:45 UTC), SpaceX and NASA employees hosted live coverage of Crew Dragon’s inaugural visit to the International Space Station (ISS), a process that included multiple demonstrations of the spacecraft’s ability to approach, halt, and reverse. Almost ten minutes ahead of schedule, Crew Dragon successfully docked with the ISS in a first for SpaceX, having previously only conducted berthings with its Cargo Dragon vehicle.
Having also debuted a previously untested docking adapter (the International Docking Adapter, IDA), the Station’s three astronauts worked to open Dragon’s hatch, a task which they completed an hour or two after “capture”. This was rapidly followed by the astronauts entering SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, another historic first for the crew-rated spacecraft. They were greeted by Ripley (also known as Starwoman) and what Anne McClain described as small Earth, the stuffed globe that was included partially as a joke and a “super high tech zero-g indicator” according to Musk. After determining that Crew Dragon’s atmosphere was non-toxic, the astronauts removed breathing masks and returned to the capsule’s interior to formally welcome it to the ISS as the world’s newest orbital spacecraft, as well as the first commercially-developed vehicle meant to carry humans into orbit.
The dawn of a new era in human spaceflight pic.twitter.com/BHsfg1zYLN
— Anne McClain (@AstroAnnimal) March 3, 2019
While it may be unintuitive, the two dozen or so relatively slow and quiet hours that followed Crew Dragon’s launch were and remain far more important, and the spacecraft’s flawless on-orbit performance has thus far retired a huge number of concerns front and center for the first true launch of any spacecraft, let alone one designed specifically to carry astronauts and keep them safe. Thus far, Crew Dragon has done exactly that, approaching the ISS and docking with nary a hiccup, as if the rendezvous was the umpteenth and nothing out of the ordinary.
Technical achievements aside, the live coverage of Crew Dragon’s patient approach was perhaps some of the most spectacular and emotionally compelling content yet provided by SpaceX and NASA. At one point, as orbital sunset neared, a NASA ground controller requested that the spacecraft’s onboard spotlight be enabled to continue the docking approach, to which the SpaceX engineer hosting the webcast remarked on just how incredible and surreal it was to watch Crew Dragon methodically approach the station from less than 100 feet away. In fact, he had apparently spent “months” with that very same LED spotlight array on his desk, working to build, qualify, and test it to ensure that the light system was ready for spaceflight, just one of hundreds or thousands of seemingly minute details that one or several employees spent major portions of their lives working on.
Come launch and on-orbit operations, SpaceX and NASA employees across the US hung on this mission’s every step with a singular nervousness, focus, and pride that easily beat even the buzz that surrounded Falcon Heavy’s iconic launch debut. Humanity as a whole may have paid significantly less attention to Crew Dragon’s launch debut, but almost every SpaceX employee appeared readily cognizant of the fact that this mission symbolized something radically more important and more fundamental to the company. Founded to ultimately help humanity take permanent steps beyond Earth orbit, Crew Dragon’s thus far flawless debut brings SpaceX as close as its ever been to shouldering the heavy responsibility of launching humans into space, be they NASA astronauts, paying tourists, or Martian hopefuls.
If all continues to proceed apace, DM-1 will conclude with Crew Dragon’s first orbital-velocity reentry on March 8th. Pending that capsules refurbishment and an equally bug-free in-flight abort test NET April to June, SpaceX and NASA could conduct the first crewed launch of Crew Dragon less than six months from now in July 2019. Much work lies ahead and delays are undeniably possible (if not probably), but – as they say – so far, so good.
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