SpaceX has, in many ways, reignited America’s interest in rocketry and space travel. After decades of seemingly humdrum orbital operations (that are actually anything but humdrum), Elon Musk’s private space venture and its partnership with NASA is now on the verge of launching human beings into orbit from American soil for the first time since July of 2011, when the space shuttle program was retired.
Early Saturday morning, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with a scheduled six-day flight that involves docking with the International Space Station and returning to Earth safely.
— David Saint-Jacques (@Astro_DavidS) March 3, 2019
While the Crew Dragon capsule didn’t carry any astronauts on this flight, it did deliver some 400 pounds of supplies and one space-test dummy the company has dubbed, “Ripley.”
Science fiction aficionados will undoubtedly recognize that name as the protagonist from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” franchise: a series of movies that begins with a commercial space crew encountering an aggressive alien species called Xenomorphs.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 1, 2019
Ripley isn’t just a place holder for future astronauts. The dummy, as well as the ship itself, is equipped with a variety of sensors constantly capturing data for analysis back on the ground. Those feeds will allow SpaceX and NASA to assess what the Crew Dragon capsule’s ride would be like on the human body.
“We instrumented the crap out of this vehicle. It’s got data sensors everywhere,” Kathy Lueders, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during the news conference. “Actually having a re-entry, with Ripley in the seat, in the position, is critical.”
.@AstroAnnimal welcomes humans aboard the first @SpaceX #CrewDragon to visit the station and introduces two special guests, Ripley and Little Earth, ushering in the era of @Commercial_Crew. #LaunchAmerica pic.twitter.com/QqzEEgDWzt
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) March 3, 2019
Assuming the capsule’s stay at the International Space Station and subsequent reentry go as smoothly as its launch and docking processes on Saturday, SpaceX will be on track to launch a manned mission using the Crew Dragon capsule in July. That launch will mark a significant shift in America’s space capabilities, as the nation that once won the Space Race has found itself completely reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets since the last shuttle flight eight years ago. While the Crew Dragon capsule was designed with usability in mind, just like the reusable Falcon 9 rockets it’s carried by, NASA has mandated that each flight use a new capsule throughout these tests and into the foreseeable future.
That July flight will be crewed by NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Both men have been with the space program for some time, with two shuttle missions to the ISS under each of their belts.
“I can’t begin to explain to you how exciting it is for a test pilot to see the first flight of a vehicle,” Hurley said during a press conference on Saturday.