The first operational mission of SpaceX’s share of NASA’s Commercial Crew program has successfully launched on a Falcon 9 rocket. It is currently flying four astronauts to the International Space Station for a six-month rotation.
Crew Dragon has separated from Falcon 9’s second stage and is on its way to the @space_station for its first operational mission! Autonomous docking tomorrow at ~11:00 p.m. EST pic.twitter.com/GCeLEyTjZe
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 16, 2020
The news comes hard on the heels after suspicions that Elon Musk might have COVID-19, spurred on by conflicting results from four tests within the same day. The tests reportedly involved the faster, but less accurate, analysis system with roughly a 50 percent failure rate. The uncertainty caused Musk to uncharacteristically stay away from an important launch.
Despite the possible infection, it is unlikely that the crew was dangerously exposed to COVID-19. All crews that are scheduled to launch will normally go through a quarantine period as part of preparations for their scheduled launch dates.
Earlier this year, crew commander Michael Hopkins announced that the Crew-1 vehicle will go by the call sign of “Resilience” in recognition of the difficult year of 2020 and the hope that the United States will rebound from challenges like COVID-19 and the contentious election cycle.
Resilience will rendezvous with the International Space Station on November 16 and is expected to dock at 11pm Eastern time. Once docked, the crew will spend six months on the space station before returning home on the same vehicle.
Crew-1 is part of a series of crewed launches that SpaceX will conduct as part of its contracts with NASA and the first operational flight of its Crew Dragon. The flight earlier this year, Demo-2, was the final test launch and the first to carry actual crew. SpaceX expects to fly Crew-2 early next year, possibly using the same spacecraft that was used to carry Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station and bring them back safely.
Competitors such as Boeing have not yet launched crews on the spacecraft that they will use for the Commercial Crew program. Boeing has had several technical issues with the Starliner, with software issues causing several glitches during its first uncrewed demonstration flight.
NASA does not have an exclusive claim on the Crew Dragon and its contracts for Commercial Crew allow private aerospace companies to fly private paying customers on the same models of spacecraft. SpaceX also plans on flying private clients such as Tom Cruise, who will film footage for an as-yet-unnamed movie project on the International Space Station. It also famously has plans to send paying customers such as Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the Moon using its Starship rocket.
Elon Musk has also indicated that he could start sending Starship spacecraft to Mars as early as 2024. This date may be typically ambitious even though testing of Starship prototypes appears to be going smoothly lately.
For now, the Crew-1 astronauts, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, are well on their way to the International Space Station. In a move that has become almost routine for the aerospace company, SpaceX has also landed the Falcon 9 first stage booster on one of its drone ships. There is no word yet on whether it plans on reusing the booster.