SpaceX: NASA Shares Impressive Image of Crew Dragon Ahead of Big Launch
SpaceX’s human-carrying capsule is about to embark on its first voyage. On Thursday, NASA shared an image of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket perched at Launch Complex 39A, with a Crew Dragon at the tip awaiting its test flight scheduled for the weekend. Its sunlit edges, backed by a cloud-covered sky, cut an awe-inspiring shape ahead of the momentous occasion.
The launch could mark the start of a new era for spaceflight. The capsule is designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which could result in the first American astronauts entering space from the United States on a commercial vessel. Campaigners like Rick Tumlinson have pushed for more commercial involvement in the American space sector for decades, and Saturday’s launch at the Kennedy Space Center will mark a key milestone in these efforts. The launch won’t include any humans, instead set to send 400 pounds of cargo to the space station before returning on March 8 with research samples.
The launch is planned as the first step on NASA’s journey to reshape its astronaut transportation arrangements. After NASA cut the shuttle program in 2011, the agency switched to using Russian Soyuz rockets from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to launch passengers, an arrangement that costs $81 million per seat. SpaceX’s capsule is designed to replace this arrangement, as is Boeing’s capsule the CST-100 Starliner. NASA is set to host Boeing’s first test flight no earlier than April 2019.
From there, SpaceX plans to move fast to fly its first astronauts later this year. It’s planning an in-flight abort test sometime after the initial demonstration, before moving onto the first crewed demonstration flight in July 2019. This will send up two astronauts: former Marine Corps colonel Douglas Hurley, and former Air Force colonel Robert Behnken. The pair have been getting to grips with SpaceX’s design, as captured in a November 2018 video. Boeing’s first crew flight test is scheduled for no earlier than August 2019.
SpaceX’s first flight is scheduled for Saturday at 2:49 a.m. Eastern time. The agency plans to host a prelaunch briefing at 4 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, with managers of the commercial crew program, SpaceX, and the International Space Station all providing updates.
While the launch is a big moment for NASA and the space station, it could pale in comparison to what comes next. SpaceX is currently developing the Starship, a giant rocket capable of transporting several people to Mars and beyond through the use of propellant plants. It could be the start of humanity breaking out of the Earth and exploring further afield.