SpaceX Crew Dragon launches NASA astronauts from Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX has created history as for the first time, NASA astronauts have launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. SpaceX is a private company of Elon Musk.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The astronauts were lifted from pad 39A, the historic site from which the crew of Apollo 11 left for the moon.

President Trump and Vice President Pence, the chair of the National space council, were present to witness this historic moment.

The astronaut Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are former military pilots who previously had each flown two missions on the Space Shuttle. So, they are  two of NASA’s most experienced space travelers.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which separated from the booster on time 12 minutes into the flight, is expected to dock with the International Space Station on May 31, at 7:59 pm IST, if everything goes according to the plan.

NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 #spacexlaunch

This mission is known as Demo-2. The mission is an end to end test flight designed to ensure the rocket and spacecraft can fly humans safely.  The test flight is to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. Once the mission completes, NASA and SpaceX would review the data and certify the spacecraft for additional missions that would regularly fly as many as four astronauts to the space station and back.

This is SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard.

NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission Objectives

This mission is the final major test before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station.

As this mission is the final test flight of SpaceX, it will validate every aspect of its crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft, spacesuits, Falcon 9 launch vehicle, launch pad 39A and operations capabilities.

Crew Dragon will be able to launch as many as four crew members at a time and carry more than 220 pounds of cargo for operational missions.

The Crew Dragon being used for this test flight can stay in orbit for about 110 days. The operational Crew Dragon spacecraft will be capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days as a NASA requirement.

How Demo-2 mission will conclude?

When the mission is going to be concluded, both the astronauts, Behnken and Hurley will board Crew Dragon, which will then autonomously undock, depart the space station, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. After splashing down off Florida’s Atlantic coast, the crew will be picked up by the SpaceX recovery ship and returned to the dock at Cape Canaveral.

About the Astronauts launched by SpaceX

Robert Behnken: He is responsible for activities such as rendezvous, docking and undocking, as well as Demo-2 activities while the spacecraft is docked to the space station. Behnken was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000 and has completed two space shuttle flights. He performed three spacewalks during each mission. He was a flight test engineer with the U.S. Air Force before joining NASA

Douglas Hurley: He is the spacecraft commander for Demo-2 mission, responsible for activities such as launch, landing and recovery. Hurley was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and has completed two spaceflights. He was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining NASA.

Why Falcon 9 rocket used in Demo-2 mission is so special

Two minutes and 33 seconds after lifting off the crew dragon module spacecraft, the first stage main engine was cut off and three seconds later, the first and the second stages separated. Then  first stage performed a flip manoeuvre, entered back into the atmosphere and vertically landed on the drone ship called ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ in the Atlantic Ocean.

So, it is the first orbital-class rocket, capable of reflight. The booster in the first stage rocket will aim for a vertical landing on a SpaceX drone ship called “Of Course I Still Love You,

To date, Falcon 9 has flown 83 times for NASA and other customers. The rocket has made history in 2012 when it delivered Dragon into the correct orbit for rendezvous with the International Space Station, making SpaceX the first commercial company to visit the station.

Since 2012, Falcon 9 has made numerous trips to space, delivering satellites to orbit as well as delivering and returning cargo from the space station for NASA.

The first stage of Falcon 9 rocket incorporates nine Merlin engines and aluminum-lithium alloy tanks containing liquid oxygen (LOX) and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellant. The rocket generates more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust at sea level but produces over 1.8 million pounds of thrust in the vacuum of space.

The second stage of the rocket relies on a single Merlin engine that also runs on LOX and RP-1.

Its name is derived from the fictional movie, Star Wars spaceship the Millennium Falcon and the nine Merlin engines of the rocket’s first stage.

NASA’s Space shuttle fleet retired in 2011, depended on Russia to ferry its astronauts

NASA has struggled to regain its footing after retiring the Space Shuttle fleets in 2011, leaving the U.S. no option but to rely on Russia to ferry its astronauts to space for as much as $90 million a seat.

The retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet took place between March and July 2011. The first of the three active Space Shuttles to be retired was Discovery on March 9, 2011, then  Endeavour on June 1 and lastly, Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the end of 30 years space shuttle program.

So, the retirement of these space shuttle fleets was a devastating blow to NASA as the agency had left with no option to fly its astronauts anywhere.

SpaceX and Boeing are working with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to design, build, test and operate safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation systems to low-Earth orbit. 

Source: NASA, Washington Post

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