At 2:49 AM Eastern Time, the Crew Dragon soared up into space and deployed into orbit at 3:00 AM, a mere 11 minutes later. The Falcon 9 then returned and landed on one of SpaceX's ships placed in the Atlantic.
The Rebirth of American Space Travel?
This flawless launch has certainly raised the hopes for U.S. space travel, particularly since it is something that has remained dormant since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in mid-2011. According to NASA's Jim Bridenstine, it signified "a new era in American excellence, getting us closer to once again flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil".
The Crew Dragon Launch formed a crucial part of NASA's Commercial Crew Programme which relies on the use of private spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.
Before NASA will place astronauts on SpaceX's (and Boeing's) spacecraft, it wants to see them in action.
Image courtesy of SpaceX.
Bridenstine spoke further at a post-launch press conference, paying tribute to the agreements between the U.S. and others that help to keep the U.S. in outer space for almost a decade since NASA's retirement of the space shuttle fleet.
“We want to make sure we keep our partnership with Russia, which has been very strong for a long time going back to the Apollo-Soyuz era, but we also want to make sure we have our own capability to get back and forth to the international space station,” he said.
“But I think another big milestone here is the idea that we’re not, as an agency, as NASA, we’re not purchasing, owning and operating our own rockets at this point. We’re looking to a future where we can be a customer, one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in lower Earth orbit.”
The most noteworthy part of the Crew Dragon mission was how it autonomously docked with the ISS.
On its approach, the nosecone of the Crew Dragon opened up to reveal its docking port and forward-facing Draco thrusters. Gradually, a series of burns took place that matched the Crew Dragon’s orbit with the ISS, enabling the Crew Dragon to dock itself with the ISS without utilising its robotic arm like the Dragon 1 had previously.
Using hypergolic propellants Monomethylhydrazine (MMH) and Nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) that combust with one another, the Draco thrusters need to ignition source since the propellants combust with one another spontaneously.
These provided the ideal, rapid short-time firings needed for the Crew Dragon to match the ISS.
An Important Dress Rehearsal
As a key partner of NASA in their Commercial Crew Programme, this launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon was hailed as an important "dress rehearsal".
While this launch did not carry human life, it did carry a dummy named Ripley. Ripley is equipped with a custom SpaceX suit and lots of sensors, the point of which was to collect data about how future launches might affect the humans riding along.
It is this data and any findings that NASA will be paying close attention to. Ultimately, however, it is not a make-or-break situation—SpaceX's Demo-2 mission will launch later this year and be the first Crew Dragon mission to carry human life, NASA astronauts Robert (Bob) Behnken and Douglas Hurley.
Around 27 hours post-launch from the KSC, the SpaceX Crew Dragon met up with the ISS and attached itself to the international docking adapter at 5:51 AM Eastern Time on Sunday, March 3rd, gently sailing 402 kilometres slightly north of New Zealand above the Pacific Ocean.
It then returned to earth loaded with 150 kilograms of cargo following its successful 6-day mission, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean at 8:45 AM Eastern Time on March 8th, six hours after undocking from the ISS at 2:32 AM Eastern Time.
It was met by SpaceX recovery ship, the Go Searcher, and loaded aboard by 9:45 AM Eastern Time before beginning its 30-hour return trip to Florida by sea.
Redefining Space Exploration
It is difficult to ignore the significance of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch.
If SpaceX’s first manned mission is a success later this year, it will open the doors to endless opportunity—SpaceX is not restricted by budgets in the same way government-funded agencies are and the technology at its disposal is constantly changing and improving, for instance.
Indeed, SpaceX’s efforts will create ample opportunity throughout the world not just for astronauts and space travel, but for the individuals who design and build the crafts, too. It is a virtual certainty that with this recent success, it won’t be long before we start seeing a lot more money being funnelled into space travel, new craft designs, and more brazen missions.
For more information on SpaceX, have a look at EP's Opinion piece: 'What Powers the Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket? A Peek Into Its Control and Electrical Systems'.