SpaceX has successfully launched its Crew Dragon capsule for the first time
It lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, and is now on its way to the International Space Station.
The news: Dark and early Saturday morning at 2:49 a.m. EST, the Falcon 9 rocket took off with the test module perched on top. The Crew Dragon successfully entered orbit and the Falcon 9 first stage booster was caught on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You. Onboard the Crew Dragon was a sensor-equipped dummy (or “smartie,” as SpaceX calls it) named Ripley (after the Alien movies, of course), 181 kilograms (400 pounds) of cargo, and a bonus stuffed Earth Celestial Buddy passenger to show off when the module reached microgravity. You can watch a video of the launch here.
What’s next: Some of the bigger tests are still to come. Tomorrow at 6 a.m. EST, the capsule will reach the International Space Station and, for the first time, autonomously dock with it. The craft will return home just a few days later on March 8, when it’ll splash down off the coast of Florida. The data obtained from this mission will help determine whether the crew module is ready to launch with people on board this July and will inform final changes to the system.
Why it matters: Since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been unable to launch astronauts from US soil, leaving it dependent on Russian rockets. If successful, SpaceX and Boeing’s crewed rockets will address that issue, but delays in the test launches could create a gap in the ability to send US astronauts to the space station. Even though things have gone smoothly on this demo flight so far, further delays of the companies’ testing processes beyond July are pretty likely. NASA appears to be preparing for that possibility. A recent procurement notice says NASA plans to buy two additional seats on Russian rockets for late 2019 and early 2020.