After a successful SpaceX launch Saturday, the unmanned Crew Dragon capsule fired its thrusters to rendezvous with the International Space Station by early Sunday.
“So far, everything is nominal,” SpaceX and Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk said.
At 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Ten minutes later, the rocket’s first stage successfully landed itself on a drone ship, and about 11 minutes later the Crew Dragon capsule separated from the rocket.
Saturday’s SpaceX launch was the first time an American commercially built rocket and crew capsule took off for the ISS. (SpaceX has been launching unmanned cargo capsules to the ISS.)
If all goes according to schedule, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will dock with the ISS on Sunday at 5:55 a.m. ET, and then undock on March 8 to make its return back to earth. If the mission goes well, another SpaceX launch with astronauts will take place this July.
Saturday marked the company’s biggest step so far toward replacing the space shuttle, as NASA looks to rely the space startup and Boeing (BA) to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.
The July SpaceX launch will mark the first time a U.S.-built rocket will send astronauts into orbit from American soil since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Currently, U.S. astronauts have to hitch rides on Russian rockets and Soyuz capsules.
The majority of the components on Saturday’s SpaceX launch, dubbed Demo-1, will be the same as those on the launch in July, or Demo-2, which will carry a crew of astronauts.
While Demo-1 does not have a crew, it carries a dummy named DM-1 Ripley (a reference to the movie “Alien”), similar to the way last year’s Falcon Heavy launch carried the Starman dummy sitting in a Tesla Roadster. Cameras are also aboard the Crew Dragon capsule.
Ripley is laden with sensors that will help NASA determine how human astronauts will respond to environmental changes in the Crew Dragon. The mission will also test life-support systems and other key functions.
The capsule is also carrying about 400 pounds of supplies and equipment for the ISS.
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Boeing, SpaceX Launch Delays
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract, and SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract to develop spacecraft for missions to the ISS.
The unmanned Demo-1 SpaceX launch had an original launch date of December 2016, but several delays ensued. More recently, it was scheduled for January but was pushed back due to mechanical issues.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner uncrewed flight test has been pushed back to April to complete “necessary hardware testing, data verification, remaining NASA and provider reviews, as well as training of flight controllers and mission managers,” NASA said earlier this month.
If the April demonstration works out, Boeing plans to launch Starliner’s first crewed test flight in August.
NASA also conducted a review of both space taxi programs to meet the stringent regulations for manned space flight.
The investigation reportedly covers anything that could impact safety and was initiated over SpaceX and Elon Musk’s marijuana use.
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