NASA and SpaceX launched a rocket over the weekend carrying a group of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This wasn’t the first time the Dragon capsule carried human passengers into space — that honor goes to the Demo-2 mission earlier this year. However, this is the first regular ISS crew rotation mission for NASA to utilize a commercial spacecraft. After years of development, the Commercial Crew Program has succeeded.
The launch included three NASA astronauts: Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins. The fourth crew member was JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi. This is the culmination of years of work at NASA and its commercial partners to design and test human-rated spacecraft that could replace the Space Shuttle for US launches. Ever since the Shuttle was retired, NASA has been forced to purchase seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the station. That arrangement was expensive, and the agency was running out of guaranteed seats after numerous Commercial Crew delays.
The launch on Sunday evening was initially scheduled for Halloween, but NASA decided to have SpaceX investigate what it called “off-nominal behavior” from the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. After another safety check, the launch went ahead with no notable issues. NASA reported a minor fuel heater issue shortly after liftoff, but it didn’t impact the mission. The first-stage booster even came down for a perfect landing on the SpaceX drone ship after the launch as the Dragon capsule, known as Resilience, continued on toward the station.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 16, 2020
For the last few years, SpaceX and Boeing have been running neck and neck to get their respective crew modules up and running. While SpaceX was able to modify the flight-tested cargo Dragon, Boeing designed a new spacecraft called the CST-100 Starliner, based loosely on the Apollo-era command module. However, a fuel leak in summer 2018 and failed uncrewed demo mission in late 2019 pushed back Boeing’s plans. Currently, it hopes to relaunch the Demo-2 mission early next year. That’s not to say SpaceX didn’t hit some speedbumps along the way — who can forget the explosion that destroyed the Demo-1 Dragon during ground testing?
NASA says it expects Resilience to arrive at the station for automated docking this evening. It plans to live stream the hatch opening and welcome ceremony around 11 PM Eastern.
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