SpaceX Launches Crew Dragon on Uncrewed Mission to Space Station

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches from the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday with the first Crew Dragon spacecraft. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A giant leap in launching astronauts from the United States began on Saturday as a commercial rocket lifted off from America’s Space Coast with a space capsule designed to fly crews to and from Earth orbit.

As NASA paves the way for humanities voyages to the moon and Mars in the coming decade, the SpaceX Crew Dragon will be used as a space taxi to ferry NASA crews to and from the International Space Station. A successful docking and return with a splashdown this week will set up for the first crewed mission this summer.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into a clear midnight sky from the Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch pad 39-A at 2:49 a.m. EST. Following a flawless launch, the Crew Dragon separated from the Falcon’s upper stage 11-minutes later to begin a 27-hour voyage to the orbiting laboratory.

NASA’s first astronauts who will launch aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon’s second flight view Saturday’s Crew Dragon launch from Firing Room 4 at the Kennedy Space Center. (NASA)

“We’re only partway through the mission, but the system thus far has passed an exhaustive set of reviews, and the launch itself,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said. “The launch went as expected and so far everything is nominal.”

Loaded with about 400 pounds of crew equipment and supplies, including a mock astronaut designed to gather stress data during the launch phase. Known as an anthropomorphic test device (ATD) the mock female-styled astronaut known as Ripley was fitted with sensors around its upper torso to understand if the spacecraft’s ride to orbit wil be safe for future crews.

“Crew Dragon features an environmental control and life support system, which provides a comfortable and safe environment for crew members,” SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend said on Friday from the space center. “While the crew can take manual control of the spacecraft if necessary, Crew Dragon missions will autonomously dock and undock with the space station.”

Crew Dragon is expected to perform several burns on Saturday to place itself in the same orbit as the space station about 255 miles high. On Sunday, the spacecraft will autonomously dock with the station at 6 a.m., followed by hatch opening at about 8:45 a.m.

SpaceX Crew Dragon will slowly approach the International Space Station and dock. (NASA)

Aboard the orbiting outpost are two astronauts and one comonaut who will greet the arriving spacecraft. NASA’s Anne McClain, Canada’s David Saint-Jacques, and Russia’s Oleg Kononenko have been in space for a few months.

Five days later, and loaded with spent science experiments and trash for ballist, Dragon will undock at 2:31 a.m. on March 8, followed by a pinpoint splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

In July, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will embark on America’s first crewed launch from the United States in eight years. Crew Dragon Demonstration 2 is poised to lift-off from the same launch pad and dock to the space station.

2019 will mark the long awaited turning point in returning human spaceflight to the United States. In April, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral AFS with Boeing’s first CST-100 Starliner on it’s first uncrewed orbital test flight. The larger Apollo-style module will ferry a crew of three astronauts to the space station in August.

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)