SpaceX just launched its longest and most ambitious NASA mission to date. Here's how the rest of the journey will go.

SpaceX just launched its longest and most ambitious NASA mission to date. Here's how the rest of the journey will go.

11/16/2020
  • SpaceX's Crew-1 mission launched Sunday evening, rocketing four astronauts into orbit for a half-year spaceflight.
  • The Crew Dragon spaceship is expected to dock to the International Space Station on Monday night.
  • Crew-1 is the first full-length mission NASA has contracted from Elon Musk's rocket company. It's poised to be the longest-duration human spaceflight ever launched from US soil.
  • Here's what to expect as SpaceX's Crew Dragon flies to the space station and back.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

SpaceX launched its most important NASA mission yet on Sunday: Elon Musk's rocket company catapulted four astronauts into Earth's orbit on its Crew Dragon spaceship.

Crew-1, as the flight is called, will be SpaceX's first full-length mission for NASA. It's also the company's second time launching people and the longest-duration human space mission ever launched from US soil. The current record, 84 days, has held since the longest Skylab mission more than 45 years ago.

The spaceship is set to orbit Earth for about 27 hours before docking to the International Space Station. After that, the astronauts are expected to stay aboard the floating laboratory for about half a year.

"We are ready for this launch. We are ready for the six months of work that is waiting for us on board the International Space Station, and we are ready for the return," NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, who commands the mission, said during a pre-launch news conference.

Hopkins' crew members are NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese Aerospace Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Here's how their flight should play out and what to expect at each stage of the mission.

On Sunday evening, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off with its Crew Dragon spaceship on top.

The rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 7:27 p.m. ET.

Glover is piloting the Crew Dragon capsule, named Resilience, and Hopkins is the commander.

Walker and Noguchi are mission specialists. 

This is Glover's first spaceflight. "I really look forward to every single bit of it," he told Business Insider. "Every time I do something in space, it will be the first time."

"I did not imagine that I would get to do what I'm doing," he added. "To be the pilot of this spacecraft is just such an honor and responsibility."

The Crew-1 mission is the first of six round-trip astronaut flights that NASA has contracted from SpaceX.

The flights mark NASA's return to human spaceflight after the gap created when the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

NASA officially certified SpaceX's launch system — including its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spaceship — after the completion of a two-day flight-readiness review.

The launch system ticked off the last requirements to be fully certified for routine use by NASA astronauts — the first time a commercial system has received that recognition.

But the space company has been working on the launch system for nearly a decade, initially with no government funding. Its earliest Falcon 9 rocket prototype, known as Grasshopper, began test flights in 2012. 

On launch day, the astronauts suited up, said goodbye to their families, and drove to the launchpad in Teslas.

"I think my family is excited. And that's exciting for me, because my goal in this entire endeavor was to make sure that it continued to be a family adventure," Glover said on a NASA podcast in October.

They took an elevator up to the crew-access arm, then climbed into the Crew Dragon.

A team helped strap the crew members into their seats.

Mission managers initially feared a launch delay after detecting a small leak during a test.

But the workers solved the problem after finding and cleaning out a piece of debris.

The astronauts waited for the rocket to be filled with fuel — perhaps the longest 35 minutes of their lives.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the first people to fly SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship, said there's a distinct rumble once the rocket is full, Noguchi told reporters on Monday.

"I'm really anxious to feel that vibration," he said.

Once fueled, the Falcon 9's Merlin engines roared to life, spewing fire and smoke, and heaved the rocket off the launchpad.

Lift-off is instantaneous, meaning it must occur at the precise second it's scheduled. Waiting any longer would allow the ultracold propellant to warm up, expand, and boil off — and fuel loss increases the risk of a dangerous rocket failure. So if there had been any delay, SpaceX would have been forced to try again another day.

The force of the launch pressed the astronauts into their seats as the Falcon 9 spent the next nine minutes accelerating Crew Dragon to 17,500 mph.

That's about 10 times as fast as a bullet, and the speed required to orbit (or endlessly freefall around) Earth at the space station's altitude.

If there had been a major problem with the rocket en route to orbit, an escape system is designed to automatically pull Crew Dragon to safety.

SpaceX showed the system works in January by launching a Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket that was programmed to fail and explode in mid-air. During the most strenuous part of the flight, the ship — empty save for a mannequin — safely flew away from the doomed rocket.

Once the Falcon 9 rocket booster expended most of its fuel, it detached from the upper stage and landed itself on a boat at sea.

That way, it can be reused to fly another day. The Crew Dragon, meanwhile, continued on to low-Earth orbit.

Now that they're orbit, the astronauts have 27 hours to roam the Crew Dragon's cabin.

They will also get some sleep for the big day ahead.

Before their launch, the astronauts had been in Cape Canaveral since November 8, busy with pre-launch preparations.

"The nerves start to really pile on as you get closer to launch," Hopkins said.

The Crew Dragon arrived at the Kennedy Space Center three days before the astronauts. Then it was secured on top of the Falcon 9 rocket.

The reusable, two-stage rocket is 230 feet tall and weighs over 1.2 million pounds. 

The launch system was rolled onto the launchpad and lifted into a vertical position on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

The launchpad's crew access arm is where the astronauts climbed into the Crew Dragon.

The astronauts and support teams carried out a dress rehearsal on Thursday.

Hopkins, Glover, Walker, and Noguchi suited up and drove out to the launchpad to practice boarding the Crew Dragon. 

NASA and SpaceX convened on Friday to review everything before signing off on the launch. They decided to push liftoff back from Saturday, as originally scheduled, to Sunday.

Winds had made conditions unsuitable to get a crucial SpaceX boat out to sea on time. The boat is where the first-stage Falcon 9 booster lands after returning to Earth.

After its stint in orbit, the Crew Dragon capsule should edge close to the ISS on Monday evening.

SpaceX and NASA expect the Crew Dragon to perform a series of automated maneuvers to dock to the station around 11 p.m. ET on Monday.

Kate Rubins, the NASA astronaut currently on the ISS, is waiting to greet the new crew.

"I have some great friends flying on that vehicle, so I'm going to be pretty happy to open the hatch and welcome them to the space station," she told Business Insider.

Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov will also welcome Crew-1 to the football-field-size laboratory.

The new arrivals will live and work on the station for a full rotation of about six months. The Crew Dragon will stay docked the entire time.

That will make Crew-1 the longest human spaceflight the US has ever launched. Russia's Soyuz missions have regularly achieved such mission durations for decades.

Behnken and Hurley, by contrast, only stayed for two months, since their SpaceX mission was a demonstration. But new upgrades will allow the Crew Dragon to stay in orbit for up to 210 days without its solar panels degrading in the harsh environment of space.

Eventually, the Crew-1 astronauts will climb back inside the Crew Dragon then return to Earth.

As it plows through the atmosphere, the spaceship's heat shield should deflect and absorb superheated plasma that can reach 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It felt like we were inside of an animal," Behnken said of the Crew Dragon's 17,500 mph dive.

If all goes well, the capsule will deploy its parachutes and gently splash into the ocean.

SpaceX and NASA are targeting either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico off Florida's coast or for the Crew-1 splashdown.

Once the Crew Dragon capsule is bobbing in the water, recovery boats will drive out to greet them.

Following Behnken and Hurley's splashdown in August, hordes of onlookers in motorboats swarmed the capsule, alarming mission managers and the US Coast Guard.

"Numerous boaters ignored the Coast Guard crews' requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger," the Coast Guard said in a statement to CBS on August 2.

Bridenstine pledged that NASA would "do a better job" of clearing boats for future water landings, including Crew-1's.

Crew-1 is the fruit of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which the Obama administration funded in 2010 to restore the agency's human spaceflight capabilities through partnerships with companies.

The government has spent more than $6 billion toward the effort, according to The Planetary Society.

Since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA had been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport its astronauts.

Soyuz has been the only option for the world's space agencies for nearly a decade. NASA opted to fund commercial spaceflight programs in order to provide more alternatives.

What's more, Soyuz has gotten increasingly expensive. One seat can cost up to $90 million. A seat on Crew Dragon, meanwhile, is projected to cost $55 million (though that does not count the funding NASA dished out to develop the spaceship).

The Commercial Crew Program is also funding the development of a new spaceship from Boeing, the CST-100 Starliner.

The company has launched an uncrewed test mission of that capsule, but a software error caused a clock misalignment and the spaceship was unable to dock with the ISS.

Boeing plans to launch a follow-up, uncrewed Starliner demo in early 2021. Its first crewed flight won't happen until later that year.

Shuttling more NASA astronauts to the ISS will allow the US to do more research in space. "I think they're going to keep us pretty busy," Hopkins said during the press call.

"It's going to be exciting to see how much work we're going to be able to get done while we're there," Hopkins added.

But the space station might end up with more astronauts than it has bedrooms. So Hopkins might sleep inside the Crew Dragon capsule.

With the Crew-1 mission, SpaceX hopes to prove that its spaceflight capabilities rival those of government-led programs – further cementing its leadership in the industry.

SpaceX leads the pack of commercial enterprises supported by NASA. The agency is shifting away from its role as mission controller to become a paying customer.

"NASA's partnership with American private industry is changing the arc of human spaceflight history," Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said on Tuesday. "We are truly in the beginning of a new era of human spaceflight."

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published November 13, 2020.

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