Early Saturday morning, SpaceX successfully launched its Crew Dragon capsule from the NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, making it the first ever commercial spacecraft to leave Earth. It’s also the first American spaceship made for people to be launched into orbit since 2011.
The Crew Dragon capsule was launched on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, and contains 400lb of cargo, as well as a sophisticated crash dummy named Ripley, a reference to Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien franchise.
The capsule is currently in orbit, while the Falcon 9 safely landed on one of the drone ships in the Atlantic. The next step is for Crew Dragon to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday and offload its cargo, before returning to Earth 5 days later.
If all goes to plan, this will be a huge milestone in the journey towards commercial space travel. 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). In fact, NASA astronauts could be traveling on board in a Crew Dragon trial flight as early as July this year.
SpaceX and Boeing are part of the $8 billion Commercial Crew Program. NASA has provided the companies with funding and expertise in the hope that they will be able to provide commercial space vehicles to fly astronauts to and from space.
NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “We’re looking to a future where we can be a customer, one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in lower Earth orbit.”