SpaceX Launch: Highlights From NASA Astronauts’ Trip to Orbit


The United States opened a new era of human space travel on Saturday as a private company for the first time launched astronauts into orbit, nearly a decade after the government retired the storied space shuttle program in the aftermath of national tragedy.

Two American astronauts lifted off at 3:22 p.m. from a familiar setting, the same Florida launchpad that once served Apollo missions and the space shuttles. But the rocket and capsule that lofted them out of the atmosphere were a new sight for many — built and operated not by NASA but SpaceX, the company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk to pursue his dream of sending colonists to Mars.

Crowds of spectators including President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watched and cheered as the countdown ticked to zero, and the engines of a Falcon 9 rocket roared to life.

Rising slowly at first, the rocket then shot like a sleek, silvery javelin into cloudy, humid skies, three days after Florida’s weather had precluded an earlier launch attempt.

It was a moment of triumph and perhaps nostalgia for the country, a welcome reminder of America’s global pre-eminence in science, technological innovation and private enterprise at a time its prospects and ambitions have been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty and political strife. Millions around the world watched the launch online and on television, many from self-imposed quarantine in their homes.

Mr. Trump, who watched from a rooftop at the space center along with Mr. Mike Pence and a bevy of administration officials and Republican politicians, called it “an inspiration for our country” and a “beautiful sight” after the ship lifted off. “I’m so proud of the people at NASA, all the people that worked together, public and private,” he told reporters.

The Falcon 9 carried a Crew Dragon capsule, which was scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.

Aboard are two veterans of the astronauts corps, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas O. Hurley. Each is married to another astronaut — Mr. Behnken to Megan McArthur and Mr. Hurley to Karen Nyberg. NASA selected the two men along with a group of their colleagues to be the first customers of space capsules built by private companies.

It was the first launch of NASA astronauts from the United States since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. In the years since, NASA has paid Russia’s space program to transport its astronauts to the space station. And with this success, NASA, to its own delight, has begun ceding this task to SpaceX and other companies, and it opens new possibilities for entrepreneurs looking to make money off the planet.

As a bonus for the good start to the mission, the booster stage successfully landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic, now a routine feat for SpaceX.

They both have backgrounds as military test pilots and have each flown twice previously on space shuttle missions, although this is the first time they have worked together on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the space shuttle’s final mission in 2011.

In 2015, they were among the astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the commercial space vehicles that the companies were developing. In 2018, they were assigned to the first SpaceX flight.

Saturday’s launch preparations began with the astronauts donning their spacesuits with the assistance of SpaceX technicians. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, and Jim Morhard, the deputy administrator, visited them in the suit-up room. Each kept a social distance and wore a surgical mask, and Mr. Bridenstine posed with the astronauts for a selfie.

Just after noon, the astronauts were seen off by their families ahead of their drive to the launchpad. Mr. Behnken asked his son, Theodore, “Are you going to listen to mommy and make her life easy,” referring to his wife, Megan McArthur, a fellow astronaut. The six-year-old replied, “Let’s light this candle!”

Within the hour, they had boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and started the hours of procedures they must complete before the launch attempt.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence spoke at Kennedy Space Center to congratulate NASA and SpaceX after the launch.

The president started his speech by addressing the death of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier in the week and the national protests that have ensued. He called for “creation, not destruction,” supporting the right of peaceful protesters, but strongly opposing rioters and looters.

The president said the launch provided a sense of pride that unites Americans.

“That same spirit which powered our astronauts to the moon has also helped lift our country to ever greater heights of justice and opportunity throughout our history,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump also discussed his creation of a Space Force, a new branch of the military, and said this and other policies of his administration aimed to help the United States regain prestige as a global leader in space.

“With this launch the decades of lost years and little action are officially over,” Mr. Trump said. “A new age of American ambition has begun.”

The president briefly addressed the coronavirus pandemic, saying the same determination and resolve that sent us to space will also conquer the disease on Earth.

President Trump gave a celebratory speech on Saturday after the astronauts launched to orbit that hailed his administration’s contributions to the mission while overlooking the key roles that previous presidents played.

Mr. Trump’s administration has elevated aspects of space policy in his White House, re-establishing a National Space Council led by Vice President Pence, and adding a Space Force to the Department of Defense. He has also his set his own major priorities for NASA — a trip to the moon by the end of 2024 as a start for trips to Mars — not unlike president before him.

But the president also criticized the state of NASA under previous administrations.

“When I first came into office three and a half years ago, NASA had lost its way and the excitement, energy and ambition as almost everybody in this room knows was done,” he said, referring also to cracks growing in runways at the Kennedy Space Center, and singling out the Obama administration because it “presided over the closing of the space shuttle.”

NASA did retire the nation’s space shuttle fleet while President Obama was in office, but this was a decision that was initiated during the administration of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mr. Trump also said that “past leaders put the astronauts at the mercy of foreign nations to send them into orbit,” referring to the use of Russia’s Soyuz space capsules. But while previous administrations made the decisions that led to that fact, they also initiated the policies that led to Saturday’s launch.

The commercial crew program that SpaceX’s launch was a part of started under President Barack Obama in 2011. It encountered fierce opposition from members of Congress, which at first did not provide as much money as NASA asked for. While this slowed development, Mr. Obama’s NASA administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., stuck with the program, steadily advancing it.

Mr. Bolden “did just yeoman’s work in order to get this program off the ground to get it going. And here we are, all these years later, having this success,” Mr. Bridenstine said earlier this week.

And the crew program itself was modeled after NASA’s commercial cargo program, which paid SpaceX and other companies during George W. Bush’s presidency to develop cheaper capsules to send materials to the International Space Station.

So the policies that led to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch are the result of continuity across three administrations, with Mr. Trump’s NASA administrator carrying the baton across the finish line after he was confirmed by the Senate about 15 months into Mr. Trump’s presidency.

SpaceX has never taken people to space before. Its Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo, but not people, to the space station.

Crew Dragon has space for up to seven people but will have only four seats for NASA missions. If this launch succeeds, it will ferry four astronauts to the space station later in the year.

The capsule that carried Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley had been nameless until it got to orbit. Saturday night, the astronauts announced the name they had given it: Endeavour, a moniker it shares with both a space shuttle and a British naval research vessel commanded by James Cook.

Michael Bay, the director of the 1998 cosmic disaster movie “Armageddon,” once gave an interview discussing the worst crisis in the making of the film.

“Three weeks before our first day of principal photography, I went to see the spacesuits,” he said. “They looked like an Adidas jogging suit on a rack. That’s where I almost killed myself.” Because, he said, if you don’t have “cool” spacesuits, the whole movie is sunk.

Apparently Elon Musk ascribes to the same school of thought.

Or so it seems judging from the white and black launch and re-entry suits the astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will wear when they hop into their white and black Tesla and ride to the Cape Canaveral launchpad to climb into the white and black SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for the maiden voyage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.

After all, when it comes to capturing the public imagination around space travel, style matters.

“Suits are the charismatic mammals of space hardware,” said Cathleen Lewis, the curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. “They evoke the human experience.”

Actually, what the SpaceX suits evoke most of all is James Bond’s tuxedo if it were redesigned by Tony Stark as an upgrade for James T. Kirk’s next big adventure. Streamlined, graphic and articulated, the suits are more a part of the pop culture-comic con continuum of space style than the NASA continuum.

To replace the shuttles, NASA decided to turn to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — in essence to produce the rental-car equivalent of spacecraft. NASA would then buy tickets aboard its capsules for the rides to space.

This program has turned out much less expensive than if NASA had developed its own replacement spacecraft, although the capsules have faced many delays on the way to being ready to launch.

NASA under the Trump administration is also hoping to spur more commercial use of the space station, for purposes including tourism. Although the tickets would be expensive, passengers can buy rides to orbit aboard SpaceX’s capsule and may purchase seats on the Boeing capsule once it is ready to fly.

Despite warnings from NASA to stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus, about 150,000 people came out to view the launch on Wednesday in the parts of Florida around Kennedy Space Center. Peter Cranis, the executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, which made that estimate, said he’s expecting another few hundred thousand viewers this weekend.

All the parking spots at the beach access roads in Cape Canaveral were full by 9 a.m. on Saturday, and not many spectators at Space View Park — a popular viewing area — were social distancing or wearing masks, Florida Today reported. And less than half an hour before lift off, the crowd had grown to nearly twice the size of Wednesday’s scrubbed launch, according to the newspaper.

The Kennedy Space Center was not open to the public on Wednesday, but its visitor center was partially opened on Saturday.

Mr. Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said guests were to observe social distancing guidelines on the agency’s grounds.

“What we expect is that when people come here, they follow the guidance of the governor.”

The Crew Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station 19 hours after launch on Sunday, at about 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. During their trip, the astronauts will test to test how the spacecraft flies and verify that the systems are performing as designed. Unless something goes wrong, the Crew Dragon’s computers usually handle all of the maneuvering and docking procedures.

The astronauts also said they planned to test out the capsule’s toilet.

Originally, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley were scheduled to stay at the space station for only two weeks. But those plans were made when NASA thought the mission would fly in 2019. With delays in the development of Crew Dragon and another capsule, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA ran out of available seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule to the space station. It now finds itself short-handed there, with only one NASA astronaut, Christopher J. Cassidy, currently on the station with two Russian counterparts.

Thus, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley are now expected to stay at the station at least a month to help Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Behnken has trained to perform spacewalks, and Mr. Hurley took refresher classes on how to operate the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.

The decision to retire the space shuttles was made in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia shuttle a year earlier. The shuttles were needed to complete construction of the space station. But their engines, heat tiles and aerodynamics made them complex to fly and maintain. Those factors, and the expense of continuing to operate them, led the Bush administration to decide that the money should be directed instead to sending astronauts back to the moon in a program called Constellation.

The space station was completed in 2011, and the shuttles were retired. The Obama administration, however, decided that Constellation was too expensive and canceled it. It then started the commercial crew program that led to the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner.

Astronauts have been living on the International Space Station continuously for almost 20 years. After the retirement of the shuttles, NASA has had to rely on the Russians for the astronaut transportation, paying tens of millions of dollars for each seat aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.

The Soyuz is based on a model that was first built by the Soviet space program in the 1960s, and the capsule typically flies to and from the space station several times each year. With the start of commercial crew missions, the number of Soyuz flights will likely fall.

NASA astronauts are likely to continue flying on Soyuz launches — and Russian astronauts on SpaceX and Boeing missions — so that the crew members are familiar with all of the different systems. However, NASA would then not be paying for Soyuz trips, but instead trading a seat on a Boeing or SpaceX craft for one on a Soyuz.

President Trump congratulated Mr. Musk in a speech following the launch, and detailed Mr. Musk’s path from internet entrepreneur to aerospace investor.

“Moments ago SpaceX became the first private company to put humans into orbit,” Mr. Trump said. “Elon Musk, congratulations. For he and 8,000 SpaceX employees, today is the fulfillment of a dream almost two decades in the making.”

Mr. Musk, not unlike the president, is not one to hold his tongue, or his Twitter cursor. But in his role at SpaceX, he has kept a lower profile than at Tesla, the electric-car company that he personifies.

With Tesla, Mr. Musk has inveighed against what he views as obstacles to doing business, including local shelter-at-home policies aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus, stock short-sellers and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But SpaceX, which as a private company is subject to less federal scrutiny — and which has been allowed to operate through the pandemic — has evaded much of what has irritated him at Tesla.

That may be partly because the company answers to a far smaller group of investors, including Mr. Musk himself, the venture capital firms Founders Fund and DFJ, Google and Fidelity. And SpaceX is guided by Gwynne Shotwell, an aerospace veteran who joined the company as its 11th employee in 2002 and has been its president for more than a decade — a delegation of authority that Mr. Musk has not practiced at Tesla.

SpaceX is based in Hawthorne, Calif., near the Los Angeles International Airport, in an area that was for decades a hub of government contractors serving the military and space missions. SpaceX also operates a test site in Texas.

The Crew Dragon is roughly comparable in size to the Apollo capsule that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Earlier NASA capsules — Mercury and Gemini — were smaller.

The inside is far sleeker than what NASA astronauts sat in 50 years ago and even the space shuttles. The computing power available is much greater now, allowing touch screens to replace the buttons and joy sticks that were used in earlier spacecraft.

“Growing up as a pilot, my whole career having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” Mr. Hurley said. “So it’s a little bit different way of doing it. But the design in general has worked out very well.”

SpaceX’s counterpart in the commercial crew program, Boeing, may not be able to launch astronauts until next year. An uncrewed flight last year suffered significant software errors, which prevented the spacecraft from achieving its primary goal of docking at the space station, and could have led to a loss of the spacecraft during its orbital test. Boeing will now repeat the uncrewed test later this year before putting astronauts aboard.

Closer to Earth, a couple of companies — Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic — are developing spacecraft that provide brief up-and-down tourist rides to the edge of space, although neither is capable of making the trip to the space station, or even to orbit.

Reporting was contributed by Kenneth Chang, Mariel Padilla, Vanessa Friedman, Niraj Chokshi, Peter Baker and Michael Roston.

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