Update: We’ll, that turned out to be anticlimactic. If you’ve seen the news today, you probably already know that the launch of the Crew Dragon was scrubbed due to weather conditions. NASA and SpaceX will try again on Saturday around 3:22 PM EDT. Fingers crossed, this time it will go off without a hitch.
If everything goes as planned, today should be a historic one for space travel. At 4:33 EDT in the U.S., a SpaceX rocket will liftoff from the iconic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, taking two astronauts into orbit and on to the International Space Station. The flight will be the first manned mission to takeoff from American soil in nearly nine years. But perhaps more importantly, it is the first time a privately owned spacecraft will carry humans into orbit as well.
SpaceX’s primary payload for this mission will be astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are on their way to the ISS as part of a scheduled science mission. They’ll fly aboard the new Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is an iteration of the existing Dragon capsule that has been shuttling supplies to the space station for several years. The Crew Dragon has undergone rigorous testing to get to this point, but today’s flight will be the first time that it is put to the test in real world conditions.
The last time American astronauts lifted off for orbit from U.S. soil was in June of 2011. That was the last flight of the aging Space Shuttle, which was put on mothballs soon thereafter. Since then, anytime an American wanted to go into space, NASA had to send them to Russia to catch a ride on a Soyuz capsule instead. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will reduce the space agency’s reliance on other countries and allow for more flexible launch schedules. In theory, it should be less expensive too, freeing up funds for use on other projects.
Perhaps the most intriguing and exciting thing about today’s launch is that it could be the first step towards true commercial space travel. While it is true that private citizens have paid millions of dollars to go into orbit in the past, it has always been aboard a spacecraft owned by the Russian government. The Crew Dragon is owned and operated by SpaceX, which is looking to take travelers into orbit, and potentially to the moon or Mars, in the future. Those flights are still likely years away from happening, but the mission to the ISS is the first step in that direction.
As someone who has always been a proponent of the space program and of space exploration in general, I’ll be watching today’s launch very closely. Hopefully it goes off without a hitch and we see the dawning of a new age in space travel. One day, I’d love to catch a ride on the Crew Dragon myself, and even though that isn’t likely to happen, I can at least dream about the opportunity. True commercial space travel has always been just out of reach, but “coming soon.” For today at least, we can all believe it isn’t as far off as it once was.