SpaceX launches new era of spaceflight with company’s first crewed mission

Against a backdrop of shifting clouds and patches of welcome blue sky, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life at 3:22 p.m. ET at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), warming the already sweltering, sticky air with blindingly bright rocket fire and sending tremors through the Florida coast. Strapped into a spacecraft atop the 229-foot-tall rocket, veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley soared into the sky, marking a triumphant return to orbit from U.S. shores.

“SpaceX, Dragon, we’re go for launch, let’s light this candle,” Hurley said to SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, just before liftoff.

Behnken and Hurley—occasionally referred to by their colleagues as Dr. Bob and Chunky—are now cruising to the International Space Station, a journey that will take approximately 19 hours. This flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is only the fifth time in history that U.S. astronauts have piloted a brand-new spacecraft into orbit.

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Astronaut Robert Behnken (foreground) gives a thumbs up as he heads to the launch pad with Doug Hurley (background).

Photograph by Bill Ingalls, NASA

For the first time since NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, the space agency can launch astronauts from its home shores rather than paying for seats aboard Russian spacecraft. Now, NASA will buy seats on Crew Dragon. In the new Commercial Crew model, SpaceX retains ownership and operational control of its spacecraft, meaning anyone with enough cash, at least in theory, could buy a ticket to orbit.

Watch historic SpaceX first crewed launch

“We want to send all kinds of people to space,” says Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX. “Everything we’re doing is to open that new chapter in the space age.”

Flying to the space station

Today’s flight, called Demo-2, was originally scheduled for May 27, but lightning and cloud cover near the launchpad that day forced a scrub about 17 minutes before liftoff.

“It’s a challenge to compete with the weather here in Florida in the summer,” NASA KSC director Bob Cabana said on May 29. “But we’re going to do what’s right.”

Demo-2 is the second and final test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft before the vehicle is certified for regular launches with passengers. If the entirety of the demonstration flight goes well, SpaceX could launch its first operational mission to transport astronauts to the ISS, called Crew-1, later this year.

“We haven’t seen this moment since 1980, this moment of anticipation with a new program starting and a new way of doing things,” says Jennifer Levasseur, a curator and historian at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.

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The bright orange flame from the SpaceX rocket seems to draw a line through the cloud layers in this 40-second exposure.

Composite photograph of two images by Michael Seeley, National Geographic

Designed to ferry as many as seven people between Florida’s Atlantic coast and low-Earth orbit, the SpaceX capsule is a sleek, modern vehicle with windows, touch screen control panels, and a large storage compartment. While in orbit, 16 Draco thrusters orient the capsule in the vacuum of space.

Eight larger SuperDraco engines provide a way for Crew Dragon to abort, hurtling away from a malfunctioning rocket during an emergency. This in-flight abort capability is designed to avoid a catastrophe like the 1986 destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, which broke apart shortly after launch, killing all seven passengers.

“It’s a very effective system,” Reed says. “You put a lot into it, you test it, you make sure it’s going to work, and then you hope you never, ever have to use it.”

Behnken and Hurley had no need for the abort system today, as they safely separated from the Falcon 9 rocket while strapped into their seats aboard Crew Dragon about 12 minutes after liftoff. For much of the ride, Dragon will fly itself while the astronauts test equipment, such as the life-support systems and specially designed pressure suits. As Dragon approaches the space station, though, Hurley will take over and practice maneuvering the capsule manually—a crucial test of Dragon’s capabilities in case the vehicle’s autonomous rendezvous mechanism fails.

“This is a critical test flight,” says NASA’s Kathy Lueders, commercial crew program manager. “Bob and Doug are going to get to test fly the vehicle and check it out … and make sure that before it’s certified, the design is working.”

Dragon will autonomously dock with the ISS at approximately 10:29 a.m. on May 31, where Behnken and Hurley will join U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The Demo-2 crew’s stay in space will last between one and four months, a duration that depends on both space station operations and the timing of the Crew-1 launch, currently set for late August.

Two pros return to space

Behnken and Hurley are 20-year veterans of the astronaut corps, close friends, and former military test pilots. Each flew aboard two space shuttle missions and delivered portions of the ISS into orbit—and Hurley piloted the last shuttle flight before the program’s retirement in 2011. During that mission, known as STS-135, the crew left a small U.S. flag aboard the space station; now, Hurley and Behnken will retrieve it.

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Two minutes after launch, the SpaceX rocket is a mere orange dot as its engines push the astronauts toward space in a picture-perfect launch.

Photograph by Bill Ingalls, NASA

“The plan always was … that the first U.S. vehicle to launch from Florida and come to the International Space Station would grab that flag,” Hurley said before launch. Neither astronaut expected another flight assignment after the space shuttle was retired, let alone on a completely new spacecraft.

“We’ve longed to be a part of a test mission, a test spaceflight,” Behnken said. “It’s something we maybe dreamed about,” even though it did not seem likely back when the pair joined the astronaut corps.

But in 2015, NASA selected the two pros for the Commercial Crew program. Now returning to orbit to join their colleagues aboard a space station they helped build, Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, feel a bit like going back to an old home.

“[Cassidy] said something about how he’s looking forward to seeing our ugly mugs on board space station.” Hurley said shortly after arriving in Cape Canaveral on May 20. “We’re hoping to go up there and lend a couple of extra sets of hands and hopefully not make more work for him in the meantime.”

When the Demo-2 astronauts leave the ISS, they’ll fly Dragon back through Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off Florida’s Atlantic coast using four parachutes. The ocean landing is similar to the watery touchdowns of U.S. spacecraft in the 1960s and 1970s.

“A capsule design—it’s kind of rudimentary in some ways, but it makes a lot of sense for getting in and out of the atmosphere in the simplest and lightest way possible,” says Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian. Capsules are also an efficient design for targeting destinations beyond Earth’s immediate neighborhood, such as Mars.

“We want our next space vehicle to take us beyond low-Earth orbit,” Barry says.

Sixty years of launches from the Cape

For decades, NASA spacecraft have streaked through Florida’s skies, taking advantage of the faster rotation of the planet near the Equator to slingshot people and machines over the Atlantic and into space. And even during the earliest days of U.S. human spaceflight, private companies played a major role in launching astronauts into orbit.

“It’s not like NASA’s civil service employees sat there and turned wrenches to build Mercury, Gemini, Apollo,” Barry says. “We had contractors who did that.”

In the early 1980s, while the Soviet Union stuck to the same basic spacecraft design, the U.S. took a different approach. NASA abandoned the capsules of its early years and launched a fix-winged spacecraft into orbit—a space shuttle that carried seven astronauts. Rather than parachuting back to Earth, the shuttle could glide and land like an airplane on a long runway at KSC or California’s Edwards Air Force Base.

Thirty years of shuttle launches turned rocket thunder into a common refrain over Cape Canaveral. Shuttle missions delivered telescopes into orbit, enabled science experiments in microgravity, and brought up the hardware needed to build the ISS. But the space shuttle program also suffered two tragedies that killed 14 astronauts: Challenger, in 1986, and Columbia, which disintegrated during reentry in 2003.

In 2011, human spaceflight from the U.S. paused. NASA retired the shuttle program, long plagued by ballooning expenses, and lost its ability to send astronauts into orbit from home. The U.S. began buying seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

Per seat, “they originally charged about $20 million, and the prices have gone up since then,” Barry says. Today, NASA pays as much as $90 million per astronaut. “It’s pretty pricey to get into space.”

At the same time, however, NASA laid the groundwork for the Commercial Crew program—an initiative to return orbital capabilities to the United States. In 2014, NASA awarded two companies contracts to develop vehicles to reach low-Earth orbit: Boeing, with a contract worth $4.2 billion to build its Starliner spacecraft, and SpaceX, with a contract for $2.6 billion to build Crew Dragon.

America’s newest workhorse rocket

SpaceX became the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the ISS in 2012. The company has since flown about two dozen resupply missions to the space station on a cargo version of its Dragon spacecraft and lofted satellites for a variety of customers, launching to orbit last year more than any other U.S. organization.

Founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk, the company’s stated goal has always been to make spaceflight more affordable, ultimately helping humanity move beyond Earth. For Musk, achieving that goal meant building orbital rockets that are reusable rather than abandoning them to the ocean after every launch. The company wasn’t immediately successful.

SpaceX’s forays into rocketry have been marked by dramatic failures as well as historic achievements of engineering. Before successfully landing the first stage of an orbital-class rocket in 2015—a previously unaccomplished feat that allowed the company to start relaunching Falcon 9 first stages in 2017—SpaceX crashed several of their boosters in failed landing attempts. Just last year, one of the SuperDraco engines on the Crew Dragon that powers the in-flight abort capability exploded during a test.

“You have to learn those hard lessons, and I think sometimes the aerospace industry shies away from failure in the development phase—it looks bad politically, it’s tough, and the media certainly makes a lot out of failures,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said ahead of the Demo-2 launch. “Candidly, I think that those beginnings and those roots are critically important to our success.”

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To date, the company has landed a Falcon 9 first stage 45 times, and it has launched 31 boosters that had already flown to space. One first stage launched five times before SpaceX failed to land it again.

“We’re going to do it our own way, we’re not going to necessarily do it the old way,” the Smithsonian’s Levasseur says of SpaceX’s approach to spaceflight. “We’re able to change the shape of it ourselves, we’re able to change the way it works.”

After taking people to the ISS, SpaceX is aiming for the moon and Mars. The company is currently designing and testing a new rocket called Starship—a vehicle that has blown up frequently during testing, most recently on May 29. NASA recently awarded SpaceX $135 million to develop Starship into a potential lunar lander.

“We envision a future where low-Earth orbit is entirely commercialized—where NASA is one customer of many customers, where we have numerous providers that are competing on cost and innovation and safety,” says NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “It’s an era in human spaceflight where more space is going to be available to more people than ever before.”