A new SpaceX crew capsule rocketed into orbit early Saturday on a test flight critical to restoring the nation’s ability to launch astronauts, after an eight-year pause.
At 2:49 a.m., as crowds cheered at Kennedy Space Center, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon capsule thundered from the same pad as the final space shuttle mission in 2011, and Saturn V moon rockets decades earlier.
Eleven minutes after liftoff, the capsule carrying a test dummy named Ripley — after the “Alien” movies’ heroine — separated from the rocket bound for the International Space Station. An Earth-shaped toy floated inside to indicate it was weightless.
The demonstration mission called Demo-1 is the first test of the Crew Dragon, and of a new model for flying astronauts that relies on private industry to design and fly the spacecraft.
“This is really a significant achievement in the history of American spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before the launch.
After the rocket’s first stage landed at sea, the Crew Dragon was on course to arrive early Sunday at the space station 250 miles overhead. Flight computers aimed to guide the craft directly into a docking port, unlike cargo versions of the Dragon that astronauts capture with a robotic arm.
Hours later, three Expedition 58 crew members including NASA’s Anne McClain planned to open the capsule’s hatch and welcome its sole occupant and some 400 pounds of supplies and experiments.
Wearing a white-and-black suit designed by SpaceX, Ripley was wired with numerous sensors to measure the temperatures, vibrations and pressure that real astronauts eventually will feel.
The six-day test mission anticipates the Crew Dragon undocking and firing thrusters to drop back to Earth for a Friday morning splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
The mission’s goal: prove that SpaceX is ready for NASA test pilots Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to strap into the capsule for the next test flight, called Demo-2, as soon as July.
The SpaceX test flight is the first for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which began partnering with private companies in 2010 and in 2014 awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts to fly astronauts worth nearly $7 billion combined.
Boeing also will fly an uncrewed test flight, possibly next month, to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The company’s CST-100 Starliner capsule could be ready for a three-person test crew in August.
The crewed flights will be preceded by tests of abort systems that would enable crews to escape a failing rocket any time from the launch pad to orbit.
Once NASA certifies them as safe to fly, the space agency will tap one of the companies to launch a four-person crew to the space station for a six-month mission. Bridenstine said Friday he was “100 percent confident” that would happen before the end of this year.