spacex crew dragon launch may 2020

Dragon Flies

SpaceX Crew Dragon: Why the ship represents a new chapter in space travel

This year, SpaceX's human-carrying Crew Dragon capsule took private spaceflight to new heights.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

On May 30, 2020, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley kickstarted a new era for human space travel. The pair were launched in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, with help from a Falcon 9 rocket, on a trip to the International Space Station.

The mission was the first crewed flight for the capsule, and its success paves the way for SpaceX to support future crewed missions. NASA didn't wait around long to put Crew Dragon to use again. The "Crew-1" flight launched on November 16, less than six months after the first flight.

Inverse is counting down the 20 most universe-altering moments of 2020. This is number 15. See the full list here.

Crew Dragon represents a new era of space travel — and solves a massive problem for NASA. After the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA needed a new way to ferry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station, home of numerous scientific experiments in microgravity.

The alternative setup left something to be desired. NASA sent astronauts to the station using Soyuz rockets, supplied by Russian agency Roscosmos. Seats on the rocket cost around $80 million each, and they took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

To develop a new means of reaching the station, NASA set up the Commerical Crew program, employing private companies Boeing and SpaceX to solve their transportation problem. Enter Crew Dragon.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, foreground, and Douglas Hurley as they prepare to fly SpaceX's Crew Dragon earlier in 2020.NASA/Bill Ingalls

It is important to note that Crew Dragon is no replacement for the space shuttle. Rather, it is perhaps an improvement. For Behnken and Hurley, the trip was "smoother" than a shuttle ride — the solid rocket boosters on the shuttle made for a rather rough ride, they said. The shuttle's fuel is easier to store flights are cheaper, but the liquid fuel used on the Falcon 9 allows for an easier-to-control flight — better for the astronauts if not for the agency's purse strings.

"Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit," Behnken told Spaceflight Now.

The capsule lifts off.Getty Images

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When Crew Dragon went up again in November, the craft carried NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, all bound for the International Space Station to begin Expedition 64. Also on board was Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japanese agency JAXA and the first non-NASA astronaut to fly on the Crew Dragon.

2020 is just the beginning. NASA has big plans: Future missions include a "Crew-2" flight in early 2021, featuring the first European Space Agency astronaut, and a "Crew-3" flight in late 2021. Crew Dragon is also expected to fly movie star Tom Cruise into orbit as part of a project to shoot the first feature film in space.

Crew Dragon is only just starting to spread its wings.

Inverse is counting down the 20 most universe-altering moments of 2020. This is number 15. Read the original story here.

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