SpaceX successfully launches astronaut demo capsule for NASA

SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company founded by Elon Musk in 2002, has launched an astronaut demo capsule designed to test the system for regular astronaut use.

The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, accompanied by Ripley, SpaceX’s test dummy. Ripley is fitted with sensors around the head, neck and spine to gather data on forces exerted on the human body during the flight.

After an eleven-minute ascent the Crew Dragon capsule was en-route to the International Space Station (ISS). Crew Dragon, which uses onboard thrusters to stay on course, is a variation on the ISS cargo freighter, which is operated by SpaceX.

The Crew Dragon capsule has number of differences from the ISS cargo freighter. The Crew Dragon will approach the ISS from the bow and dock automatically using a new connection ring design; however, the ISS cargo freighter approaches from under the orbiting lab and makes use of a robotic arm to rotate it into the berthing position. The three ISS astronauts onboard will monitor the capsule during docking and undocking.

Other differences between the cargo freighter and the Crew Dragon include life-support systems, stronger thrusters and four parachutes rather than the cargo freighters’ three, to allow more control when landing the capsule on its return to Earth. Manager of NASA’s ISS programme, Kirk Shireman said in a statement: “You’ll hear us talk about this being a flight test; it absolutely is, although we view it also as a real mission, a very critical mission.”

If the mission is a success, SpaceX has great future plans for the Crew Dragon capsule and it does not stop at astronaut flights. Elon Musk explained his future plans shortly after bidding the Crew Dragon farewell. “Our focus has been on serving NASA’s needs but once Dragon is in regular operation, I think we will seek commercial customers of which the NASA administrator, and NASA in general, has been very supportive.”

SpaceX aims to offer regular people (who can afford the ticket), a chance to visit the ISS, just as the Russian Soyuz Spacecrafts have done previously. To date space tourism has only been performed by the Russian Space Agency, so the race is on for companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX to be the second.