And we have liftoff! Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley are currently on their merry way to the International Space Station (ISS) after the historic first launch of NASA's Commercial Crew Program onboard a SpaceX rocket. At 3:22 pm EDT, the two astronauts safely and successfully left the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. They are now on a 19-hour journey around the Earth to the ISS. This is the first flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and only the ninth type of spacecraft to launch into orbit.
Though this is the first Commercial Crew launch, this is not Behnken and Hurley's first trip to space. They have been in orbit twice already as they are both veterans of the Space Shuttle program. They have not, however, been in space together.
This is the first launch from American soil since the Space Shuttle Atlantis was retired in July 2011. Symbolically, Behnken and Hurley took off from Launch Complex 39A, where Atlantis flew from almost nine years ago. Piloting the last Space Shuttle was none other than Hurley. It is also where all but one of the crewed Apollo missions launched from.
The astronauts are expected to dock with the ISS at about 10.30 am EDT tomorrow morning, Sunday, May 31 and the hatch between the capsule and the space station should be open roughly two and bit hours later. The astronauts will stay with the current members of Expedition 63 for as little at 30 days or up to a maximum of 119 days. They will be back at the latest on September 23, splashing somewhere in the North Atlantic.
This is the first crewed flight of the Commercial Crew Program, developed by NASA in partnership with private companies Boeing and SpaceX. The aim of this mission is to reduce the agency’s cost to access low-Earth orbit and allow the focus to shift to human missions in deep space. Principally, this means a return to the Moon with the Artemis program.
The rocket and the capsule were both developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and had their uncrewed maiden voyage last year. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has bought seats on the Russian Soyuz rockets to launch into space at a cost of $80 million per seat. The agency investment in the Commercial Crew Program allows NASA to pay less than a third of that cost.
The Commercial Crew Program has been controversial and both companies and NASA have dealt with delays and safety concerns. It took SpaceX six years and three failed launches to get to this point. Boeing’s own difficulties pushed their expected crewed launch date to some time next year.
However, thanks to today's historic launch, the way American astronauts access space has changed forever.