In the wee hours of Saturday morning, SpaceX will launch for the first time its Crew Dragon capsule, a key step in the process to eventually send humans into space from U.S. soil, something that happened since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.
The spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:48 a.m. Eastern, aboard the Falcon 9 rocket — if weather conditions allow. The first stage of the Falcon 9 will attempt to land on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean.
The launch, dubbed Demo Mission-1 (or DM-1), is the first of three tests to prove to NASA that SpaceX’s astronaut taxi has what it takes to routinely ferry astronauts to and from the ISS for years to come.
Both NASA and SpaceX will be live streaming what could be a milestone for Elon Musk’s aerospace venture. But even if Falcon 9 makes it past the atmosphere without a hitch, Crew Dragon still has a ways to go before the test flight is considered a success.
The rocket booster is expected to reach preliminary orbit in about 10 minutes, that’s when the first stage rocket will jettison itself from launch vehicle. That’ll reveal Falcon 9’s second stage, a single Merlin Engine that will propel Crew Dragon to the ISS. It’s expected to arrive at the space station on Sunday at roughly 5:55 a.m. Eastern and it’ll stay for just five days.
Crew Dragon will attempt to make its return to Earth on March 8, carrying with it a number of research samples from the ISS. The spacecraft start its deorbit burn five hours after, lasting for 10 minutes, before entering the Earth’s atmosphere for 30 minutes before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Ripley,” officially known as an anthropomorphic test dummy or ATD, won’t only be there for show, like Starman during Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight. It will help engineers understand how the craft holds up and whether it’s ready for human passengers.
If all goes according to plan, Crew Dragon will move on to its next two tests: an In-Flight Abort Test in June and a crewed Demo-2 test flight in July. Boeing’s CST-100 capsule is undergoing a similar series of test flights and could join SpaceX in taxing NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.
SpaceX’s test launch Saturday morning is a pivotal moment in American space travel history. Since the Space Shuttle was retired, NASA astronauts have been hitching a ride on Russian Soyuz rockets to get to the ISS. If both SpaceX and Boing complete their test flights with no complications, NASA will once again begin launching astronauts into space from American soil.
It would be a textbook example of how the private aerospace industry can serve to achieve government space agency goals.