An “exhilarating” start for Dragon, but the hard tests are still to come

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted its brand-new Dragon spacecraft into orbit for the first time early Saturday morning, and so far everything has gone well. After opening its nose cone for navigational purposes, Dragon is now spending about 24 hours performing a series of phasing maneuvers to bring it toward the International Space Station, where it will dock at around 6am ET Sunday.

Although SpaceX has been flying a cargo-based version of the Dragon to the station since 2012, the new Dragon has been entirely remade for crew. That includes interior life-support systems, autonomous docking capability, an integrated launch escape system, and solar panels built into the spacecraft itself.

“The Crew Dragon is a fundamental redesign, with hardly a part in common with Dragon,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said early Saturday morning, after the launch, during a news briefing. “The system thus far has passed an exhaustive set of reviews, and then the launch itself went as expected. So far, everything is nominal.”

But the mission, which will last from Saturday morning’s launch through a critical splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, March 8, is far from over. Musk himself acknowledged this. “To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted,” he said. “It was super stressful. But it worked, so far. We’ve got to dock to the space station and come back.”

An “exhilarating” start

For employees of SpaceX—who have worked to bring Crew Dragon to fruition for most of the last decade—Saturday morning’s launch proved cathartic. No private company has ever launched humans into orbit, and during a webcast of the launch, SpaceX employees could be seen packed into the main foyer of the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., cheering each milestone.

A veteran of two spaceflights, Garrett Reisman left NASA in 2011 to play a senior role in the development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft at SpaceX until last year. He was among the cheering SpaceX throng. Now a professor of human spaceflight at the University of Southern California, Reisman said the atmosphere was electric.

“Man, we were all working so hard to get to the start of flying this new vehicle—it was super exhilarating,” he said.

The excitement level was high because SpaceX and NASA understand the significance of this test for crew flights—success here will allow astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to launch into space later this year or early in 2020 on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. The excitement was tempered, however, by the realization that the launch was only the first step.

“Launch is probably the least technically interesting part of this mission,” Reisman said. “We’ve launched a lot of Falcon 9 rockets now. We’re pretty good at throwing things into space.” The former astronaut said he was heartened to see that the new propulsion, communication, and other systems on Crew Dragon all were performing as expected so far, with the biggest tests yet to come with docking to the station, and reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.

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