Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become the first private company to launch human beings into orbit, after its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft — carrying two NASA astronauts — successfully blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday. The launch was particularly significant as it marked the first instance of American astronauts being launched into orbit since 2011.
Veteran NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have embarked on a 19-hour voyage to the orbiting International Space Station, where they will spend four months before returning home. The mission was originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 27, but was postponed 16 minutes and 53 seconds prior to the launch due to bad weather caused by the Tropical Storm Bertha.
What makes this mission special?
With the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space craft, NASA is heralding a new chapter in space exploration — where private companies will have a bigger role to play. In an interview with Everyday Astronaut, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said a government monopoly in space exploration was not sustainable. Inviting private players is expected to exponentially bring down the cost of space travel.
Further, this is the first time that astronauts have been launched from US soil since the STS-135 mission on July 8, 2011, following which all astronauts were flown to the International Space Station in Russia’s Soyuz Capsule.
What happened at the launch?
“Let’s light this candle!” Hurley said, right before liftoff, echoing the words used by Alan Shepard on America’s first human spaceflight in 1961.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre. This is the same launchpad from which Saturn V rocket for the Apollo 11 Mission had taken off, carrying the first humans to the Moon.
Once Behnken and Hurley entered the capsule, the hatch was shut, and the rocket was fuelled with cold propellants for half an hour before the launch. This ensures better performance.
Two minutes and 33 seconds after liftoff, the first stage main engine was cut off and three seconds later, the first and the second stages separated. The first stage rocket performed a flip manoeuvre, burnt during atmospheric re-entry, and was retrieved by the drone ship, /Of Course I Still Love You/, in the Atlantic Ocean.
A few seconds after the separation, the ignition of the second stage engine began. In the second stage, the Crew Dragon proceeded towards the International Space Station. The Crew Dragon reached Earth’s orbit around 12 minutes after takeoff.
The astronauts will orbit Earth for 19 hours and will occasionally fly it manually so that they can share their experience with future crews. Crew Dragon Capsule will dock automatically into the docking port Harmony, with the help of sensors and cameras, on May 31, at 7:59 pm IST, if everything goes according to the plan.
Who are Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the crew of NASA’s Demo-2 mission?
Douglas Hurley (53) was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2000 after serving as a fighter pilot and test pilot in the US Marina Corps. Hurley has completed two spaceflights — STS-127 and STS-136. During the mission, Hurley will be handling launch, landing and recovery of the spacecraft.
Meanwhile, veteran Airforce test pilot Bob Behnken became an astronaut in July, 2000. Activities such as rendezvous, docking, and undocking are the responsibility of Behnken. He has completed two space shuttle flights in March 2008 and February 2010, and performed three spacewalks during each mission.
Once successfully docked, Behnken and Hurley will board the International Space Station and become members of the Expedition 63 Crew, and will perform tests on the Crew Dragon and conduct research.
The mission is expected to last 30-90 days, following which the two astronauts will depart from the International Space Station by boarding the Crew Dragon. The trunk gets jettisoned, and a deorbit burn lasting approximately 12 minutes occurs, following which atmospheric re-entry takes place. The Crew Dragon capsule will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean and will be recovered by the Go Navigator Recovery Vessel.
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