The drought is over: NASA and SpaceX successfully launch Demo-2
History has been made and an almost nine-year drought has ended. SpaceX has successfully launched its first crewed mission, marking the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight. The SpaceX Crew Dragon is now officially on her way to the International Space Station for the first time with humans on board.
SpaceX ground crews worked feverishly Tuesday night on an issue with the ground support equipment on the strongback supporting Falcon. Teams were able to work through the mechanical issue, and despite dodging questionable weather for most of the countdown, Falcon 9 and Dragon were given the green light for a 4:33 p.m. liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After the world held its breath on Wednesday, the launch was ultimately scrubbed due to several weather violations, forcing a backup attempt on Saturday May 30.
On Saturday, the crew’s day began at around 10:00 a.m. with the first weather briefing of the day, painting out an era of uncertainty surrounding building thunderstorms throughout the day. Nevertheless, the count continued, and the crew were transported to the launchpad at approximately 1:00 p.m. Once Bob and Doug arrived, they were able to take one final look at their craft that would be bringing them on their historic flight. After the crew rode the elevator up to the crew access arm, SpaceX teams assisted them into the spacecraft. Once the crew was successfully strapped in and secured, the go for propellant load was given at t-minus 45 minutes to launch. Three minutes later, the crew access arm retracted away from the spacecraft, and Dragon’s pad abort system was armed. From there, fueling began. Distinctive white condensation clouds could be seen drifting off the rocket causing the vehicle’s skin to expand and contract in the Florida heat; Falcon 9 was ready to fly.
The stage was set for what can only be described as the Super Bowl event in spaceflight this year. SpaceX Principle Integration Engineer John Insprucker narrated SpaceX’s livestream, bringing a sense of nostalgia, excitement, and familiarity to those who have borne witness to previous historic SpaceX launches. Falcon 9 performed perfectly as it jumped off Pad 39A. The rocket passed through Max-Q approximately a minute after liftoff, with the second stage throttling up to full thrust shortly after. About two minutes after liftoff, the nine Merlin first stage engines shutoff, and the second and first stages parted ways.The booster completed its signature flip maneuver and boost back burn to align itself on a trajectory to rendezvous with the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.” The downrange weather was less than ideal, as a tropical low pressure system made its way north up the Atlantic after originating in South Florida. High winds and rough seas made for a challenging booster recovery, but luckily SpaceX was able to stick the landing and save what is sure to be a historic monument of a booster featuring the classic NASA “worm logo.”
While the first stage booster completed its landing, the Falcon 9 second stage with Dragon and her crew continued to orbit. At approximately eight and a half minutes after leaving earth, the second stage engine shutoff, and Dragon departed the upper stage three and a half minutes later; taking aim at the International outpost.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are currently riding Dragon to the International Space Station. They are expected to reach the Station approximately 19 hours after liftoff. As Spacecraft Commander, Hurley’s role includes monitoring and initiating spacecraft commands to perform NASA required on-orbit tests for Dragon before the crew can dock with the International Space Station. Once Dragon arrives at the Station, it will pressurize itself to match the pressure of the orbiting laboratory. From there, the crew will be able to open the hatch and initiate arrival procedures.
The exact duration for Crew Dragon’s ISS stay is still yet to be determined, however, as discussed in a May 1 press conference by NASA’s deputy Manager of commercial crew Steve Stitch, it is expected that Crew Dragon will stay docked to Station anywhere from 30-119 days. Any time beyond the 119 days could possibly result in a degradation of Dragon’s solar panels.
However, the mission is far from over. Spaceflight Insider will continue to provide coverage on the on-Station activities taking place in the coming weeks for the duration of a Demo-2. While the exact date is not known, Dragon still needs to prove it can safely return her crew home. Splashdown is currently targeting just off the Atlantic coast of Florida. Once the astronauts are safely recovered, and the data from the entire flight is reviewed, NASA should give the green light for SpaceX’s first operational mission of Crew Dragon currently scheduled for late August.
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.