A rocket ship named Dragon breathed new life into the United States' human space flight program on Saturday, carrying two astronauts on a highly anticipated adventure.
The launch of SpaceX The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon's crew capsule from Florida's Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station (ISS) marked the first time since 2011 that humans took off into orbit from American soil.
Equally important, he announced a new direction for crewed spaceflight, with entrepreneur Elon Musk SpaceX becoming the first commercial operator to transport astronauts into space as part of a public-private partnership set up by Nasa, the US space agency, in 2010.
Dragon, on top of the mighty nine-engine Falcon rocket, rose from the launch pad at 3:22 p.m. ET, creating thick plumes of smoke and fire as it climbed on top of the launch pad. ;Atlantic.
"Thank you for the first human release of Falcon 9," said captain Doug Hurley from the cockpit after Dragon reached orbit. "It was amazing … enjoy all the hard work and thank you for the great space walk."
Like Wednesday, when the first attempt at launch was postponed for 17 minutes on the countdown, the mission leaders played cat and mouse over time, facing only a 50% chance of "going" at dawn, when thunderstorms, lightning and low clouds harassed Cape Canaveral. This time, they took a break.
The Falcon rocket propellant, as has become almost a routine for SpaceX, returned to Earth after the separation on the first floor and successfully landed on a recovery ship in the Atlantic for use in a future mission.
The capsule reached orbit 12 minutes later and will spend 19 hours chasing the space station 250 miles above the planet before docking on Sunday. Hurley and Bob Behnken, space shuttle mission veterans, will join their NASA colleague Chris Cassidy, already resident with two Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS.
As a test mission paving the way for regular Dragon flights later this year, all aspects of the spacecraft's performance will be analyzed by SpaceX engineers. Behnken and Hurley will remain in orbit for up to 120 days.
"It's been far too long," said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, about the launch. “It was just an amazing day. I breathe a sigh of relief but I won't celebrate until Bob and Doug get back safely. "
Although audiences were invited to watch the launch remotely due to coronavirus restrictions, Donald Trump and his wife Melania, and Vice President Mike Pence, attended in person. Trump has made space a priority with the founding of space Force as a branch of the U.S. military, independent of NASA, and the unveiling of its America's first national space strategy.
He also ordered NASA to land humans on the moon by 2024, for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972, although the Artemis deep space program agency is several months late. and more budget.
Some analysts see Trump as seeking to exploit space programs launched before his presidency for political gain, channel a message of American world supremacy even in the midst of a pandemic to which its response has been strongly criticized.
Saturday's flight was revolutionary. The four-seater touchscreen Dragon capsule is a 21st century spacecraft with little resemblance to the largely mechanical Apollo capsules of the 1960s and the fleet of orbits of the NASA space shuttle.
The crew avoided the Astrovan "tin can" which has been transporting the crew since the United States began sending humans into space in 1961, traveling to the launch pad in electric cars manufactured by Tesla, another Musk company , listening to music from AC / DC.
Their pressurized flight suits, partly designed by Musk himself, look like "something about the Jetsons," according to Leland Melvin, a former shuttle astronaut.
Certain traditions remain. Dragon took off from launch pad 39A, the site of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's takeoff to the moon in 1969, the first Columbia space shuttle flight in 1981 and the most recent NASA crew flight launch in 2011 from the Atlantis orbiter, piloted by Hurley.
The launch is another milestone for Musk’s spaceX, which was transporting cargo to the ISS on unmanned spacecraft. One of two subcontractors to NASA's $ 6.2 billion commercial crew program, SpaceX flew a step on Boeing by completing a unmanned abandonment test in January. The Boeing Starliner capsule suffered a flight anomaly during its test flight in December. Future launch dates are under review.
"It is really hard to believe this is real," said Musk, the billionaire founder of PayPal who doubles as chief engineer of the California-based company, before the launch attempt on Wednesday.
"It is a dream come true for me and for everyone at SpaceX, the result of a huge number of smart people working so hard to make this day a reality."
SpaceX has overcome its own challenges. A Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed in a explosion on the ground in Cape Canaveral in April 2019 and in 2015, a Falcon rocket detonates 139 seconds of flight. Friday, a prototype of its new generation Starship spacecraft exploded during a ground test in Texas.
"The joke we make is that at NASA, failure is not an option," said Jeff Hoffman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and former NASA astronaut.
"But at SpaceX, failure is how they learn, how they do things right. And this is one of the ways Musk has been able to progress and realize the innovation brought by SpaceX.
“The era of public-private partnership in space flight has arrived. Whether NASA is going to save a lot of money by paying SpaceX rather than paying the Russians is unclear. But the money stays in the United States. And for strategic and geopolitical reasons, it is good to have our own human launching capability. "
Since 2011, NASA has been forced to rely on the Russian space agency, purchasing seats aboard an aging Soyuz spacecraft for up to $ 85 million each. If this mission, officially known as SpaceX Demo-2, succeeds, all that has changed.