At exactly 7:27 p.m. ET on Sunday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster burst to life at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, its engines lighting up the Florida coast. The picture-perfect launch of the gumdrop-shaped Crew Dragon spacecraft — nicknamed Resilience — marked.
Not since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 has NASA sent humans to orbit from American soil in an operational mission. The launch for this particular mission has been delayed, pushed back and postponed multiple times — the original timeline included a launch date of November 2016. Four years, Resilience has now docked with the International Space Station.
“By working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part, the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” Michael Hopkins, spacecraft commander of Crew-1, said prior to launch.
The docking was scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. PT and was essentially right on time. However, shadows obscured the crew’s view of the space station, and the astronauts decided to make a short hold 20 meters from the docking adapter. After waiting for “sunset” and the shadows to move away, Resilience made contact with the ISS and officially performed a “soft capture” at 8:01 p.m PT and docked at approximately 8:15 p.m. PT.
“This is a new era of operational flights to the International Space Station from the Florida coast,” said Hopkins upon docking.
The Crew Dragon carried an international assembly of astronauts: Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker of NASA, plus Soichi Noguchi of Japanese space agency, JAXA. After a handful of safety checks and a welcoming ceremony in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the team will get to work on science experiments and maintenance. They are expected to spend the next six months on the station. The Dragon is capable of autonomous and the Dragon is rated to remain at the station for 210 days, as per NASA requirements.
The launch was celebrated by NASA and SpaceX representatives at a post-launch conference Sunday. “This is a great day for the United States of America and a great day for Japan,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “The big milestone here is that we are now moving away from development and tests and into operational flights.”
“I am looking forward to enjoy the new era and going together for the future,” said Hiroshi Sasaki, vice president at JAXA.
Less than 10 minutes after launch, the first stage Falcon 9 booster landed safely on the Just Read The Instructions droneship stationed in the Atlantic. It was the first time the reusable rocket was utilized in a mission and the plan is for it to be reused on the next operational flight of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Crew-2.
The launch of Crew-2 is slated to occur in March 2021 and will again carry four astronauts. It will reuse the Crew Dragon Endeavour, which was first used in the SpaceX Demo-2 mission in May.
Around 12 minutes later, Resilience separated from the second stage and headed on its way.
It’s not the first time a Falcon 9 rocket has delivered a Crew Dragon spacecraft to space. In May, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were. But that was a test mission, the final box to be ticked before operations officially begin for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Crew-1 signals the return of operational flights to US soil and the first flight in the CCP. Until recently, NASA was purchasing flights on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Flying SpaceX, NASA will save around $25 million per seat.
NASA has also contracted Boeing to deliver astronauts to the ISS, butduring its first uncrewed demonstration launch.
Updated Nov. 17: Added docking success, changed headline