SpaceX launches spaceship created to carry astronauts

Clark Diaz
March 4, 2019

US President Donald Trump has congratulated the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and private US aerospace manufacturer SpaceX on the successful launch of Dragon 2 spacecraft for its first unmanned test mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The rocket lifted off at 2:49 a.m. EST. The Crew Dragon includes a new emergency escape system, first tested in 2015, that's created to carry astronauts to safety if there's an emergency. SpaceX needs to nail the debut of the capsule before putting people on board later this year.

Crew Dragon will dock to the forward port of the space station's Harmony module, which has been fitted with an International Docking Adaptor (IDA).

It is to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean, and then return to Cape Canaveral.

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Crew Dragon is meant to transport astronauts eventually, but for this month's mission it carried a data-collecting test dummy named Ripley, which will monitor how traveling in the craft may affect humans.

Though NASA and SpaceX were confident it would go seamlessly, it was a reminder that "there's always human life at risk", Patrick Forrester, chief of NASA's astronaut office at Johnson Space Center, said last week.

Both companies have received billions of dollars from NASA to develop spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts safely to and from the station.

If the rest of the SpaceX mission goes as planned, two astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, could be flying aboard the Crew Dragon as early as July, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reported.

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This test flight didn't include crew - except for a high tech mannequin named "Ripley" - but it was meant to go through all the procedures of a crewed mission.

"This is a critically important event in American history", Jim Bridenstine, the head of the United States space agency, told reporters, with the rocket and capsule visible behind him on the legendary launch pad where the Apollo missions to the Moon began. That capsule called the CST-100 Starliner is set to launch in April without a crew and again with a crew in August.

The launch comes nine years after NASA invested about £38million ($50million) into its Commercial Crew Program. NASA aims to one day use the SpaceX capsule to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS (currently the agency relies on Russian ships, at a cost of $81 million per seat).

The Falcon 9 rocket booster landed on a droneship in the Atlantic at about 3 a.m. Saturday, SpaceX said, making it the 35th successful landing of one of the company's rocket boosters.

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The Boeing and SpaceX launch systems are aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian rockets for rides to the $100 billion orbital research laboratory, which flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth, at about $80 million per ticket.

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