Lifting off from the same launch pad where NASA astronauts flew to the moon and the space shuttle Atlantis roared into orbit on the final flight of the shuttle program, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule — one of the long-awaited replacements for the space shuttle — launched Saturday on its first uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station.
The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the capsule lifted off at 2:49 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The capsule successfully separated from the rocket about 11 minutes later, sparking cheers in the control room.
The critical debut flight will go through every step of a real mission — just without any human passengers onboard. The Crew Dragon capsule is expected to arrive at the space station on Sunday (March 3) at around 6:05 a.m. ET.
The spacecraft will remain attached to the orbiting outpost for a week, before undocking on March 8 and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida, several hours later.
The spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven passengers to the space station, but for this flight, the capsule is loaded up with 450 pounds of cargo and a test dummy outfitted in one of SpaceX’s customized spacesuits. The dummy is nicknamed Ripley, in honor of Ellen Ripley, the fictional character played by Sigourney Weaver in the 1979 film “Alien,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of Build and Flight Reliability, revealed Thursday in a pre-launch news briefing.
Last year, SpaceX sent another spacesuit-clad test dummy — this one named Starman in a nod to David Bowie — into space on the inaugural launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
SpaceX has been flying robotic supply missions to the space station since 2012, but this test flight, known as Demo-1, is the first time that a commercially built spacecraft designed to carry astronauts will make that journey. If successful, SpaceX will move one step closer to flying human passengers aboard its Crew Dragon capsule.
NASA is expected to schedule one more uncrewed flight of the Crew Dragon before authorizing two of its astronauts to fly the capsule to the space station.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was developed in partnership with NASA to help the space agency replace its space shuttle fleet, which was retired in 2011. Since then, NASA has been relying on Russian rockets and space capsules to ferry its astronauts to and from the space station, for a reported cost of $80 million per journey.
In 2014, NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing a combined $6.8 billion contract to build a pair of new spacecraft. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule could undergo its first uncrewed test flight in April.
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