For nearly a decade, if Americans wanted to leave the planet, they had to do so from a launchpad in Kazakhstan. Now they need only go as far as Florida.
Two astronauts launched into space this afternoon, departing from the sandy shores of Cape Canaveral, from the same launchpad where the space shuttles and Apollo missions once took off. The astronauts work for NASA, but for the first time in spaceflight history, they’re flying on a truly private spacecraft, designed from top to bottom by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company.
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken made the journey wearing SpaceX suits, inside a SpaceX capsule, atop a SpaceX rocket, from a SpaceX-operated launchpad.
The astronauts are bound for the International Space Station, humankind’s only off-world residence, where one American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are waiting for them. The successful launch makes SpaceX the first private company to put astronauts in orbit, a feat achieved by only three spacefaring nations: Russia, the United States, and China.
SpaceX tried to launch earlier this week, but that attempt was called off less than 20 minutes before the scheduled liftoff because of weather conditions, including lightning near the launchpad.
Today, as the clock ticked down toward launch and anticipation heightened, one could almost forget that this moment was unfolding in the midst of a pandemic—and as cities across the country experience intense civil unrest over the police killings of black Americans. But the sight of Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, wearing a mask as he spoke with Hurley and Behnken brought the surreal circumstances into stark relief. Hurley and Behnken were tested for COVID-19 at least twice before they launched, and have spent several weeks in quarantine. President Donald Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch.
The send-off is also a reminder of how this mission is so different from any other in U.S. history. NASA has always relied on contractors to build the capsules and rockets that take people beyond the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. But the agency has given SpaceX an unprecedented amount of responsibility in this effort: SpaceX engineers are at the consoles, they gave the final word for launch, and they’ll be the ones communicating with the astronauts on their journey to the space station.
In this new chapter of American spaceflight, Mission Control isn’t in Houston. It’s on a street called Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California, at the headquarters of a company that Musk founded less than 20 years ago for this very purpose—to send people to space, on missions as far as Mars. This launch brings SpaceX closer to that vision, or at least closer to convincing the public that the company could someday pull off such a feat. SpaceX is working on a solo space effort, a spaceship designed to deliver dozens of people to Mars. That launch day is likely years away, but SpaceX can now say that it has experience launching the most precious cargo off of Earth. (SpaceX lost its fourth prototype yesterday, when it exploded during an engine test.)
The first passengers of this flight, Hurley and Behnken, are seasoned spaceflight veterans, with four flights on America’s space shuttles between them. Hurley flew on the final space-shuttle mission, in 2011. The George W. Bush administration had decided earlier that the program would be wound down, because of a mix of cost, political, and safety factors. In the years since, NASA has helped fund SpaceX’s effort to develop a brand-new astronaut-transportation system that the space agency could then hire for the job.
Hurley’s crew left a memento—a small American flag—on the ISS before they departed, for a future crew, arriving inside a homegrown capsule again, to bring back to Earth. At the time, Hurley never imagined that this new program would bring him full circle. “I certainly didn’t expect to fly again,” he told reporters recently.
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.
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.”
SpaceX is one of two commercial companies NASA hired to help in the effort to return human spaceflight to American shores. The other company, Boeing, is developing its own system, but experienced a major setback late last year when its capsule, flying without people, failed to reach the ISS and was forced to return to the ground. An investigation has uncovered a litany of errors in Boeing’s flight software, and NASA wants the company to conduct a do-over mission before the agency can determine whether it’s safe enough to fly astronauts.
This afternoon’s successful launch means SpaceX has edged out Boeing in the effort to send NASA astronauts to space. Both companies have faced technical issues and schedule delays since they received their NASA contracts in 2014, and each side has publicly resisted describing the effort as a “race.” Doing so would risk the perception that the companies were focused on speed over safety. But SpaceX can bask a little bit in this milestone, knowing it beat a longtime NASA contractor that, for younger commercial companies in the industry, represents an old way of space travel.
Hurley and Behnken are expected to remain on the ISS for several weeks, perhaps even a few months. The astronauts received extra training for this purpose, including, for Behnken, a few practice runs in the giant pool at Johnson Space Center, where astronauts rehearse spacewalking. If the mission goes well, the next crew will fly in August, and SpaceX could start selling seats on the capsule to other customers beyond NASA. The astronauts know they are stewards of what SpaceX hopes is the first of many flights.
“Our goal through this entire process is to not turn the spacecraft into Bob and Doug’s excellent machine, and with a bunch of things that only Doug likes or only Bob likes,” Behnken told reporters before the launch.
For now, though, the spacecraft is all theirs.