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SpaceX launches first NASA astronauts to fly from US since shuttle

May 30, 2020

— In a sight that has been absent for almost a decade, a rocket carrying NASA astronauts launched from the United States, beginning a new era of American human spaceflight.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Saturday (May 30), on a test flight to the International Space Station. The two crew members became the first U.S. astronauts to enter Earth orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program nine years ago this July.

"America has launched!" announced NASA mission commentator Dan Huot from SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. "And so rises a new era of American spaceflight and with it the ambitions of a new generation continuing the dream."

Riding atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Behnken and Hurley took flight at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1932 GMT) from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The same site was used to launch the first astronauts to land on the moon and the first and last space shuttle crews, among more than 100 other missions.

About 9 minutes after leaving the ground, the Dragon entered orbit, as the first stage of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle approached a propulsive landing on an ocean-based droneship for its recovery and later reuse. Aboard the Dragon, a sequined blue and pink dinosaur doll began to float, serving as the crew's zero-g indicator.

At 12 minutes after launch, the Dragon separated from the Falcon's second stage, beginning the astronauts' 19-hour journey to the space station. After a series of manual control tests, the Crew Dragon is scheduled to autonomously dock to the orbiting laboratory at 10:29 a.m. EDT (1429 GMT) on Sunday (May 31).

"Bob, Doug, on behalf of the entire launch team, thanks for flying with Falcon 9 today. We hope you enjoyed the ride and wish you a great mission!" radioed Bala Ramamurthy, the SpaceX's chief engineer for the launch, to the Demo-2 mission crew after they were safely in orbit.

"Congratulations to you and the F9 [Falcon 9] team for the first human ride for Falcon 9. It was incredible. Appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride to space," said Hurley.

"I'm proud of you guys and the rest of the team," added Behnken. "Thank you so much for what you have done for us today — putting America back into low Earth orbit from the Florida coast."

Launch America! Click to view and enlarge in a new, pop-up window. (NASA)

Although similar in some respects to the first-generation Dragon spacecraft that SpaceX launched on 20 missions without a crew to resupply the station, the new Crew Dragon was designed from the start to be a 21st century vehicle, employing 3D-printed components and touchscreen for most of its flight controls.

"The vehicle, from a manual flying standpoint with the touchscreen, flies very well," said Hurley. "You interface with the vehicle such that the [views from the] cameras are actually displayed on that same display, so you seeing the docking target, for example, when you are maneuvering close to the space station right in the same exact place you are looking to fly the vehicle."

"The difference is you have to be very deliberate when you are putting an input in with a touchscreen relative to what you would do with [an airplane's] stick," Hurley explained, "so it is a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well."

The capsule also features a reusable nosecone, which was opened to expose the Dragon's docking interface 13 minutes into flight.

First unveiled by SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk in May 2014, the Crew Dragon (or Dragon 2) was chosen by NASA to fly astronauts to and from the space station in September 2014, together with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. The two vehicles were expected to restore the crewed launch capability lost with the end of the space shuttle program by as early as 2015, but congressional budget cuts and technical challenges delayed the start of NASA's commercial crew program missions.

SpaceX conducted a successful uncrewed demo mission to the space station in March 2019. The company also completed two abort tests; a pad abort test in May 2015 and an inflight abort in January of this year.

The 8 years, 10 months and 11 days between the landing of STS-135, the final shuttle flight, and the launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 (DM-2) mission was the longest stretch of time that the U.S. lacked a human launch capability since the start of the space program. During that time, NASA astronauts relied solely on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to fly to and from the space station.

The gap exceeded the 5 years, 8 months and 23 days that spanned the time between the end of the Apollo program (marked by the 1975 splashdown of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and the start of the space shuttle program in 1981.

The Crew Dragon is the fifth U.S. spacecraft and the first commercial vehicle to launch with NASA astronauts in the space agency's 60-year history. It is the first U.S. crewed orbital spacecraft to be able to fly autonomously and the first to be solar powered, with half of its rear-mounted trunk lined with solar cells. The DM-2 mission is the 164th crewed orbital launch from the United States.

Behnken, as joint operations commander for the Demo-2 mission, and spacecraft commander Hurley were first selected by NASA as part of its initial commercial crew cadre in July 2015. The two were assigned to the SpaceX crewed test flight in August 2018.

Behnken, 49, holds a doctorate in engineering, is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and was chief of NASA's astronaut corps from 2012 to 2015. He previously flew as a mission specialist on two space shuttle flights to the International Space Station, STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010, logging 29 days and 12 hours in orbit.

Hurley, 53, is an engineer and colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He piloted two space shuttle flights, including STS-127 in 2009 and the final flight of the program, STS-135 in 2011, for a total of 28 days and 11 hours in space.

"You cherish every flight assignment if you want to continue to fly in space, and certainly it is unique in that it is the next one from a United States perspective since STS-135," said Hurley, commenting on his being on back-to-back U.S.-launched crews. "I try not to think about too much because, while it is important to some degree, it is certainly not the focus of this mission."

Both Behnken and Hurley are married to fellow astronauts, Megan McArthur and Karen Nyberg, respectively.

In addition to carrying supplies for the crew, the Dragon also has on board a photo mosaic of the planet Earth in celebration of the worldwide student graduates who are members of the Class of 2020 and a series of paintings by street artist Tristan Eaton entitled "Human Kind."

Once on board the space station, Behnken and Hurley will join the Expedition 63 crew led by commander Chris Cassidy, Hurley's former STS-127 crewmate and the successor to Behnken as NASA's chief astronaut. The length of their stay will be decided by NASA managers based on the performance of the Dragon and the readiness of the next SpaceX spacecraft to launch.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida carrying a Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020. (NASA/Tony Gray/Tim Powers)

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (at left) and Doug Hurley are seen on the Crew Dragon prior to the Demo-2 mission launch. (SpaceX)

NASA astronauts Doug (at left) and Bob Behnken, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, are seen as they prepare to depart for Launch Complex 39A for the Demo-2 mission launch, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

SpaceX's Crew Dragon with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard is seen separating from the second stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, Saturday, May 30, 2020. (NASA TV)

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (at left) and Bob Behnken pose at the base of their SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before launching on the Demo-2 mission on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (SpaceX)

NASA's and SpaceX's Demo-2 mission patches. (NASA/SpaceX)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with the company's first crewed Dragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Saturday, May 30, 2020. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were the first astronauts to launch from the U.S. in nine years. (SpaceX)

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