Rich, adventurous people may soon be able to travel into space – and possibly visit the Moon and Mars - thanks to the wizardry of serial entrepreneur Elon Musk. The Crew Dragon is the first capsule made by a private company to be launched into space, created by Tesla chief Musk’s company, SpaceX.
The spectacular launch of his Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday is a significant addition to the modern space era. Notwithstanding his childish antics and questionable judgement that sometimes casts doubt on his ability to be a responsible CEO, expectations have been raised from the South African billionaire and SpaceX in the coming years. Even Neil Armstrong, the enduring icon of the first space race and the most famous naysayer of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, would probably reluctantly admit that Musk’s unrelenting passion, talent, and drive will get him to his ultimate destination — Mars. Musk, 46, said this had been his ambition since childhood and he had spent the last 18 working towards this goal.
The picture-perfect landing of the Falcon 9 rocket for reuse, should also be remembered as the “mic drop” moment proving the validity of a free market space industry. When the last of the doubting policymakers in Washington finally wake up to the deeper meaning of SpaceX’s most recent victory, the full weight of the American free market economy will be unleashed to enable new paths for NASA, the US Space Force and open new business areas for the growing commercial space industry.
Consensus is that in only America could something like this happen. There are plenty of space companies scattered around the world, but their government created most of them in some fashion. Yet when someone has a bold new idea to change the world, whether it’s an Afrikaner like Musk, 46, or Brit like Sir Richard Branson, they go to America to realise their dreams. It was America’s answer to the space doldrums they were in a decade ago — shuttle aging out, Russia leading the world in manned spaceflight — and it worked.
It was a magical moment to see the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule successfully dock with the International Space Station after its historic launch.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the two astronauts on board, gave a thumbs-up as they arrived at the station around 19 hours re in Florida.
“Dragon arriving. Crew of Expedition 63 is honoured to welcome Dragon and the commercial crew program to welcome aboard the International Space Station,” NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy said. “Bob and Doug, glad to have you as part of the crew. Welcome,” Cassidy added.
From Earth, NASA officials then welcomed the astronauts. “This is Houston. Bob and Doug, welcome to the International Space Station, after your spectacular rendezvous in docking the first Crew Dragon vehicle, for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle, you’ve completed a historic ride to the ISS and have opened up a new chapter in human space exploration” a voice said to the astronauts.
The mission marks the beginning of a new era in which NASA will be purchasing transport services from the commercial sector. No more will it own and operate the American vehicles that run to and from the station.
This will be done exclusively by firms such as SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. SpaceX flew a first demonstration of its new crew vehicle last year, but that had only a dummy aboard. This sortie is the first to carry humans.
Hurley’s and Behnken’s job on the mission is to test all onboard systems and to give their feedback to engineers.
SpaceX and NASA need a clean crewed demonstration so they can move swiftly to the next phase of the company’s $2.6bn contract, which will encompass six astronauts “taxi” flights, with the first of these likely to occur at the end of August.
Hurley’s and Behnken’s arrival at the International Space Station means they get to claim a Stars and Stripes flag placed on the platform by the members of the very last space shuttle mission in 2011.
The Atlantis orbiter’s crew left this flag as an incentive to all those that came after them. The flag, which also flew on the very first shuttle flight in 1981, will now be returned to Earth to be given to the mission that next goes beyond Earth’s orbit.
Earlier, Hurley and Behnken named their Dragon ship in the time-honoured tradition of US spacefarers. They called it “Endeavour”, in part to celebrate the new course being set by NASA and its commercial partners, but also to acknowledge the past contribution to American space efforts by Shuttle Endeavour, on which both Hurley and Behnken served in the late 2000s.
It’s somewhat uncertain how long the pair will stay at the ISS, but perhaps as much as four months.
In that time, they will become members of the current ISS Expedition 63 crew, taking part in the platform’s everyday science and maintenance activities.
Cassidy joked that because his new crewmates arrived on a Sunday, they had missed the cleaning chores that normally take place on a Saturday. “We’ll catch up next weekend,” the commander said.