In true SpaceX fashion, the astronauts were taken to the launchpad in a Model X Tesla with NASA’s logo painted on the side. When they climbed into the car, their wives and young sons approached and touched the astronauts’ gloved hands through the rolled-down windows. Their spouses, Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur, are astronauts too, and they know perhaps better than anyone the risks of spaceflight. Earlier this week, Musk told their sons, “We’ve done everything we can to make sure your dads come back.”
Today’s launch wasn’t even the hardest part of the mission. SpaceX has mastered launching Falcon 9 rockets over the years, and perfected the intricate maneuver that returns boosters back to Earth, where they gently land upright, ready to be used again, a move that many in the aerospace industry once thought impossible.
Once in orbit, Hurley and Behnken will change out of their spacesuits, conduct a long checklist of tests and procedures, and eat some dinner, specially prepared by NASA food scientists to keep well in microgravity. They will even sleep. The astronauts will spend about 19 hours in space as the Crew Dragon capsule adjusts its trajectory and catches up to the ISS.
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The capsule is designed to make this journey autonomously. SpaceX flew a mission to the space station last year with a mannequin on board, and the flight software behaved flawlessly, safely delivering the capsule to the ISS and back. (That capsule was later destroyed during testing on the ground, but NASA and SpaceX officials say they have remedied the problems that led to the explosion.) Astronauts used to have to manually attach the space shuttle to the ISS, but Dragon can do it on its own.
Hurley and Behnken will now get a chance to fly the capsule manually for testing purposes without changing their path, and they can take control of the spacecraft if needed.
NASA has set the rules for keeping the astronauts safe from start to finish, and the agency made the call that SpaceX was ready to launch. This is the first time that Americans have flown on a brand-new spacecraft since 1981. If something goes wrong, NASA will have to answer for its contractor. But earlier this week, Musk said that if things go south, the blame should fall on him.
“I’m the chief engineer of the thing, so I’d just like to say, if it goes right, it’s a credit to the SpaceX/NASA team,” Musk said in a CBS News interview that aired before the launch. “If it goes wrong, it’s my fault.”
When the CBS News reporter asked what keeps Musk up at night about this launch, Musk replied, “Not one thing.” Bridenstine, standing with them, chimed in with a smile: “There’s lots of things.”
Although this is SpaceX’s mission, NASA officials will be watching over its shoulder. Before the launch, Bridenstine told me the agency could take over if needed. “If we see something that we disagree with, certainly, we have the right to intervene,” he said, but “I don’t see that being necessary at this point.”