On Saturday, May 30, courtesy of Demo-2, SpaceX became the first privately-owned company to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Saturday was also a historic moment for NASA and the United States. After a hiatus of nine years following the discontinuation of the space shuttle program back in 2011, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and took flight from American soil on a journey to the space station.
A scrubbed launch
Although Demo-2 was initially scheduled for Wednesday, May 27 at 04:33 PM EDT, the launch was scrubbed, with just 17 minutes left on the clock before liftoff, due to the Tropical Storm Bertha that was brewing off the coast of the Carolinas. The next launch window available to NASA and SpaceX was Saturday, May 31 at 03:22 PM EDT, an hour earlier than the Wednesday window.
In the following days, the weather continued to be unfavorable with cancellation likelihood as high as 50 to 60% even for Saturday. However, the situation improved and the final weather reports deemed the conditions to be approximately 70% favorable. This time, Behnken and Hurley, ensconced in their seats in Crew Dragon, were given the go-ahead.
Liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida
At 03:22PM EDT, Saturday, May 30, Dragon took flight atop the Falcon 9 rocket from the historic Launch Complex 39A in Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Launch Complex 39A was a fitting place for Crew Dragon’s maiden crewed flight to the ISS as it is the same place the Saturn V launched humanity to the Moon and from where the first and final Space Shuttle missions lifted off as well.
After lift-off, the Falcon 9 rocket powered through the ascent stages. Approximately a minute after launch, Max-Q, a point where the Falcon 9’s atmospheric flight reaches maximum dynamic pressure, was achieved.
A minute and a half later, the main engine cutoff (MECO) occurred, and Stage 1 of the rocket detached from Stage 2. From here on, the flight pathways of Dragon and the Falcon 9’s boosters diverged.
Following the infamous flip maneuver, the Falcon 9’s first stage initiated its entry burn around the 7-minute mark to slow down for its descending back into the Earth’s atmosphere. On the other hand, second stage cutoff 1 occurred (SECO-1).
Midway through the tenth minute after launch, the Falcon 9’s booster entered its landing burn and completed a vertical touchdown at sea on the drone ship. Three minutes later, Dragon separated from Stage 2 and began its voyage towards the International Space Station.
What followed was a journey just shy of 19 hours. During this period, we had several interesting events onboard, including the appearance of ‘Tremor’, the toy Apatosaurus dinosaur which was seen floating inside the Dragon capsule. The astronauts cherry-picked Tremor from their sons’ toys to take with them to the ISS.
Hurley and Behnken also announced that they had named their capsule Endeavor due to their first flights onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor and as a memento of the decommissioned space shuttle program. In addition to this, Behnken and Hurley also got some time to hit the hay before the final approach to the ISS began.
While the Crew Dragon was designed to dock at the space station with little human intervention, Bob Hurley piloted the spacecraft until 220 meters from the docking ports. From here on, they gave up control and let the automated docking system take over. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon docked at the ISS on Sunday, 31 May at 10:16 AM EDT, 13 minutes ahead of the scheduled time of 10:29 AM EDT.
Dragon's docking makes it the fifth vehicle parked on the space station currently. A few hours later, the hatch was opened and Hurley and Behnken boarded the ISS. They were welcomed by NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Ivan Vagner and Anatoli Ivanishin who embraced them upon entry.
With the first part of the test mission complete, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are now officially a part of the ISS Expedition 63. They are expected to stay on the space station from six to sixteen weeks, with the exact dates for departure depending on NASA's mission directives.
Of course, the Dragon capsule will undergo a series of tests at the ISS as well. The Endeavor will be once again put to the test when it begins its fiery descent back towards the Earth, where it all started from, in a few months' time.