NASA and SpaceX made history earlier this month when they launched the first-ever commercially built rocket designed to carry humans into space and dock with the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center at 2:49 am on March 2nd.
The inaugural launch, which has been named “Demo-1”, marks the first flight of NASA’s “Commercial Crew Program.” While there was no crew aboard this rocket, it was a vital test in achieving the goal of once more putting humans in space from United States soil. NASA conducted its last shuttle mission in 2011. Since then, any U.S. astronaut that has gone to space has done so from another country.
What makes this launch so historical is that it’s the first time that we’ve truly seen the fruits of NASA’s investment in commercial space programs. SpaceX is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, but this is the first step toward partnering with the private company to put humans on board the I.S.S.
The spacecraft docked with the I.S.S. on Sunday, March 3rd. Dubbed “Crew Dragon,” the spacecraft underwent a long list of tests on its approach to the docking station on the I.S.S. Specifically, the craft demonstrated its ability to maneuver under total automation. That included adjusting its course and backing away from the station before it finally docked.
The event marked the first time that the Crew Dragon had ever docked in space, and no amount of on-the-ground testing can totally predict how it would go. The data gathered from the docking process will help to tweak future missions where human lives will actually be on board. From delicate sensing equipment to an all new docking mechanism, the test was a major step toward the next phase of the Commercial Crew Program.
Future missions could potentially launch as many as four astronauts, along with over 220 pounds of additional cargo, into orbit.
Crew Dragon is scheduled to remain docked until Friday, March 8th. At that point, the spacecraft will return to Earth, where all of the craft’s reentry systems will be closely studied.
NASA’s first manned Crew Dragon mission is tentatively scheduled for this coming July.