The launch of astronauts using SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is on schedule to occur within months after the Dragon Crew Capsule, mannequins on board, safely escaped a simulated disaster. It will be the first time humans have been sent into space from American soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.
To an uninformed observer, the event may have looked like anything but a success, with the rocket ending its life in an enormous fireball, rather than being recaptured in SpaceX's signature move. However, this was entirely as intended, with the purpose of the event to test the capacity of astronauts on future missions to escape safely should something go wrong.
The crew capsule separated from the rocket 90 seconds after launch at an altitude of 20 kilometers (12 miles). The capsule, mannequins safely onboard, blasted clear of the doomed rocket, reaching a height of 44 kilometers (27 miles) before parachuting into the Atlantic Ocean, where a recovery ship reclaimed it.
For NASA, the capacity to abort a launch safely was the last test SpaceX needed to pass before being entrusted with the lives of astronauts on the way to the International Space Station. The exact timing of the human launch remains uncertain, but is expected to be in the first half of this year.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed his organization’s endorsement.
Unsurprisingly, SpaceX's chief executive Elon Musk was excited with the outcome after the mixed success of his most recent unveiling, the Tesla cybertruck. “I'm super fired up,” Musk told reporters after attending the launch. “It's just going to be wonderful to get astronauts back into orbit from American soil after almost a decade of not being able to do so. That's just super exciting.”
As an indication of just how close to crewed missions NASA considers SpaceX to be, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley watched the event while wearing spacesuits, as part of a dress rehearsal of the planned launch.
Since the last Space Shuttle was shut down, NASA has had to depend on sending astronauts via Russia's Soyuz space program. Aside from the dependence on Russia from an organization founded to beat America’s cold war enemy into space, it's always expensive to be at the mercy of a monopoly supplier.
NASA has been counting on SpaceX and Boeing to provide it with alternatives, and has provided SpaceX alone with $3.1 billion to get to this point. Boeing's Starliner uncrewed capsule entered the wrong orbit on its last test and missed the Space Station. With the company's reputation already under question after the tragedies with the 737MAX, it's unclear how much leeway NASA will grant them when putting lives on the line.
It hasn’t all been smooth for SpaceX either, however, with crewed launches delayed several times, having initially been scheduled for 2017.