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Photos: Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon blast off from pad 39A

SpaceX’s first human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft took off Saturday from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, launching NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the first piloted orbital space mission from a U.S. spaceport in nearly a decade.

Taking advantage of a break in the weather, the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket took off at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (1922:45 GMT). Around 12 minutes later, the Falcon 9’s upper stage deployed the Crew Dragon spaceship into orbit.

These photos show the Falcon 9 launching atop nine Merlin 1D engines, each consuming kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, producing a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust.

Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft take off from the Kennedy Space Center on the first orbital spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

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gusgrissom: Welcome to the ISS, Bob and Doug!! Congrats to the…







gusgrissom:

Welcome to the ISS, Bob and Doug!! Congrats to the whole team!

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Making history, astronauts ride commercial capsule to space station

Russian flight engineer Ivan Vagner tweeted this picture of the newly-enlarged Expedition 63 crew Sunday on the International Space Station. Behnken and Hurley are seeing black shirts. Credit: Ivan Vagner/Roscosmos

A Crew Dragon spaceship built and owned by SpaceX glided to an automated docking with the International Space Station Sunday, delivering NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the orbiting research complex after a trouble-free 19-hour flight from the Kennedy Space Center.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule, named Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken in honor of NASA’s retired space shuttle, linked up with a docking adapter on the space station’s Harmony module at 10:16 a.m. EDT (1416 GMT) Sunday. Running a few minutes early, the crew capsule docked in autopilot mode after Hurley tested the ship’s manual touchscreen flight controls on its approach to the space station.

The docking marked the first time a commercial spacecraft has carried astronauts to the International Space Station, a landmark accomplishment for NASA as the U.S. space agency looks to commercialize transportation to and from Earth orbit.

The Dragon crew capsule launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. It was the first crew flight on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket after 84 flights of SpaceX’s workhorse launcher.

A few minutes after the initial contact, the docking ring retracted and 12 hooks closed to make a firm connection between the Dragon spacecraft and the space station. A set of power and data umbilicals also mated through the docking adapter to route electricity and communications between the station and Crew Dragon.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the International Space Station on Sunday. Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

Mission control radioed the Dragon crew at the conclusion of the automated docking sequence.

“We copy, docking complete,” Hurley said. “It’s been a real honor to be just a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States (crew) spaceship has docked with the International Space Station.

“We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX at Hawthorne, McGregor and at Kennedy Space Center for incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible,” he said. “It cannot go overstated.”

Hurley also thanked engineers from NASA’s commercial crew program, which has overseen development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which has not yet flown in space with astronauts.

“This is an incredible time to be at NASA (with) three new vehicles to be flown continuing the mission in low Earth orbit, and then to the moon and Mars,” Hurley said, referring to the Dragon, Starliner and NASA’s Orion capsule designed for trips farther from Earth.

Chris Cassidy, commander of the space station’s Expedition 63 crew, rang the ship’s bell to welcome the SpaceX crew capsule.

“Dragon, arriving,” Cassidy said. “The crew of Expedition 63 is honored to welcome Dragon and the commercial crew program … aboard the International Space Station. Bob and Doug, glad to have you part of the crew.”

After a series of pressure and leak checks in the passageway between the Dragon and the space station, the astronauts opened hatches between the vehicles, and Hurley and Behnken floated into the nearly 500-ton research complex in a scene reminiscent of the arrivals of visiting space shuttle crews during the station’s construction.

Cassidy was the only U.S. astronaut on the space station before the Crew Dragon docking. He launched April 9 from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft with Russian crewmates Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

After exchanging hugs and greetings, the combined five-person crew marked the occasion with a live video downlink with VIPs gathered at NASA’s mission control center in Houston.

Hurley and Behnken’s mission — designated Demo-2, or DM-2 — is a test flight to check the performance of the Crew Dragon spacecraft before its pressed into operational service later this year. The SpaceX crew capsule, along with Boeing’s Starliner, will carry astronauts to and from the station on regular crew rotation flights lasting up to 210 days.

“While we’re on-board the space station with a new spacecraft, we do hope to put her through her paces,” Behnken said after entering the space station Sunday. “So the good ship Endeavour is going to get a lot of checkout over the next week or two here, and hopefully we will be able to declare her operational.”

“As SpaceX’s final flight test, it will validate all aspects of its crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft, spacesuits, Falcon 9 launch vehicle, launch pad 39A and operations capabilities,” NASA said in a statement summarizing the Demo-2 mission objectives.

But the two Dragon astronauts — each veterans of two prior space shuttle missions — will be part of the space station’s Expedition 63 crew for a period of one-to-four months, NASA officials said before the launch.

Behnken, the Demo-2 mission’s joint operations commander, is expected to perform multiple spacewalks with Cassidy in the coming weeks to install fresh lithium-ion batteries outside the space station. The new batteries arrived on an unpiloted Japanese HTV supply ship May 25.

Behnken and Cassidy might also conduct a spacewalk to focus on tasks outside the European Space Agency’s Columbus lab module.

“We’re looking forward to contributing any way that we can and trying to keep the space station as productive as possible,” Behnken said Sunday.

The Dragon crew was scheduled to get a safety briefing from Cassidy Sunday afternoon.

“Then we’re looking froward to some operational stuff later in the month,” Cassidy said. “Maybe we’ll get outside and do some spacewalks … We’re all super-excited to have two more crewmates on the Expedition 63 team.”

The historic mission to restore human spaceflight capability to U.S. shores comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice.

“As a country, we’re in the midst of a tough week,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “We’re seeing protests. We’re seeing a lot of anger, we’re seeing violence. I have to say this launch, and y’all’s docking, is a powerful inspiration of what we can do when we come together — the power of unity, the power of ingenuity.”

“This is just one effort that we can show for the ages in this dark time that we’ve had over the past several months to kind of inspire especially the young people in the United States to reach for the lofty goals, and work hard and look what you can accomplish,” Hurley said.

Hurley, 53, is a retired Marine Corps colonel who hails from Upstate New York. Behnken is a 49-year-old Missouri native, and a colonel in the Air Force.

They are the first astronauts to fly commercial into Earth orbit. NASA says the change will bring about lower costs and more innovation in the space transportation industry.

NASA is also looking to incorporate commercial elements in its architecture to return humans to the lunar surface. The agency last month announced SpaceX and two other companies won contracts to advance development of human-rated lunar lander vehicles.

“This is the beginning,” said NASA Administrator Bridenstine. “We are now launching (astronauts) to low Earth orbit again, but we will soon be going to the moon. We will going to the moon sustainably with commercial partners and international partners. We are going to use the resources of the moon to learn how to live and work for long periods of time. Ultimately, we’re going to take all of that knowledge, and we’re going to go to Mars.”

The Demo-2 astronauts will live and work on the International Space Station for one-to-four months before coming back to Earth for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean around 24 nautical miles off the east coast of Florida. The final duration of their test flight will be primarily determined by the performance of the capsule’s solar arrays in orbit, mission managers said earlier this month.

The test flight was originally slated to last only a week or two, but NASA approved a mission extension to ensure the space station’s U.S. segment is fully staffed to conduct experiments and stage spacewalks needed for maintenance and upgrades.

NASA has paid the Russian government approximately $3.9 billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report last year by NASA’s inspector general.

Most recently, NASA agreed to pay the Russian government $90.2 million for a single Soyuz seat on a launch this October. The U.S. space agency decided to sign the agreement to guarantee access to the space station for a NASA crew member in the event of additional delays in the new U.S. crew capsules.

Assuming Hurley and Behnken’s test flight goes according to plan, the first operational Crew Dragon launch is scheduled from the Kennedy Space Center no earlier than Aug. 30 with a four-person space station crew.

Boeing’s Starliner spaceship — facing delays after a problem-plagued unpiloted test flight last December — will have to perform a second automated demonstration mission before it is cleared to fly astronauts. The Starliner’s crewed test flight to the space station is now expected in the first half of 2021.

The start of commercial crew transportation service will allow the space station crew size to increase from six to seven people. But with NASA seat purchases on the decline, Russia’s space agency has reduced the production rate for Soyuz spacecraft.

The slower Soyuz launch rate has limited the station crew to just three people until the Dragon test flight. That was a factor in NASA’s decision to extend the duration of Hurley and Behnken’s stay at the complex.

“We have had a tremendous partnership with Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency), and we will continue to do so, but it is nice to see crew arrive from this side of the space station after nine years,” said Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A report by the NASA inspector general last year concluded the space agency is paying roughly $55 million per round-trip seat on Crew Dragon missions, and $90 million for a Starliner ticket to the space station. Both capsules will typically carry four astronauts on missions to the International Space Stations.

NASA expects to end payments to Russia once the new U.S. crew ships are operational. Under the space agencies’ current plans, U.S. astronauts will continue flying on Soyuz spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts will launch and land on the new U.S. vehicles under a barter arrangement, with no funds exchanged.

But Russian officials say they are not assigning cosmonauts to missions on U.S. vehicles until they are flight-proven.

Russia’s partnership with NASA on the International Space Station program on a technical level has been an unqualified success. Without Russian spacecraft, U.S. astronauts could have not flown to and from the station in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, or since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011.

But the political relationship has been tortured at times.

One low point came in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. That prompted the Obama administration to levy U.S. sanctions on Russian government entities, and some individuals, including then-Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is now the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin suggested on Twitter in 2014 that the United States “deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”

“The trampoline is working,” joked Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, after Saturday’s launch of the Dragon spacecraft.

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SpaceX, NASA make history ahead of schedule as astronauts reach space station

Less than 19 hours after liftoff and almost 10 minutes ahead of schedule, SpaceX has successfully docked NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time in history, officially returning that capability to the space agency after nearly nine years without it.

Demo-2’s docking marks the first time a privately-developed orbital-class spacecraft has launched, reached orbit, and docked with the space station with astronauts onboard, completing a major foundation and taking the biggest step yet towards SpaceX’s founding goal of sustainably expanding humanity into space. Perhaps even more importantly, the milestone marks the first time US astronauts have traveled to or from the ISS on a domestic vehicle since the Space Shuttle’s last launch and landing in July 2011.

Due to a combination of Congressional ineptitude, systematic underfunding, NASA mismanagement, and delays to Commercial Crew partners Boeing and SpaceX, that domestic access gap has lasted the better part of a decade. Now, if Crew Dragon continues to perform nominally in orbit and SpaceX’s Dragon and Falcon production and qualification continues apace, the company could proceed to its second astronaut launch and first operational NASA crew transport mission just a few months from now.

Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley approach the International Space Station. (SpaceX/NASA)

Impressively, Crew Dragon’s inaugural astronaut launch has gone off with no notable issues with the spacecraft or rocket. Aside from a lone Draco maneuvering thruster showing an out-of-family temperature sensor reading shortly after reaching orbit, no other glitches have been noted on NASA and SpaceX’s uninterrupted webcast.

In the last hour or two, however, SpaceX did call up to astronaut Bob Behnken to determine the cause of a spacesuit pressure reading slightly below nominal, although the ground controller made sure to clarify that the suit would have still done its job in the event of Crew Dragon cabin depressurization. By the sound of it, Bob observed a zipper tooth out of place on several seams, pointing to a fairly mundane source of the issue. More recently, NASA has been working to establish wired (“hard-line”) communications between the docked Crew Dragon spacecraft and the ISS without much luck, while “interference issues” were raised as a possible explanation. It’s unclear if the problem is deriving from Dragon or the ISS.

A sequence of screenshots depicting Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arriving at the International Space Station (ISS). (SpaceX/NASA)

On the scale of human spaceflight, wired communications issues – while radio communications links remain strong and functional – are about as mild as they come. Bob and Doug remained in regular contact with NASA and SpaceX ground controllers and did their best to help troubleshoot the wired communication bugs while eating dinner and waiting patiently for NASA’s lone ISS crew member to complete the final steps before hatch opening.

During the webcast, SpaceX predicted that Crew Dragon’s hatch would be opened around 12:15 pm EDT (16:15 UTC), allowing Bob and Doug to board the International Space Station (ISS) and marking the full completion of the arrival half of the historic spacecraft’s astronaut launch debut. Tune in below to watch as NASA’s first Commercial Crew Program (CCP) astronauts prepare to open Crew Dragon’s hatch and complete their ISS arrival.

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Crew Dragon docks with ISS

Demo-2 docking with ISS

WASHINGTON — A Crew Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station May 31, less than a day after making history as the first human orbital spaceflight from the United States in nearly nine years.

The spacecraft, named Endeavour by its crew of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, docked with the station’s Harmony module at 10.16 a.m. Eastern. The spacecraft’s approach to the ISS went smoothly, with docking taking place nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

“It’s been a real honor to be be just a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States spaceship has docked with the International Space Station,” said Hurley moments after docking, thanking NASA and SpaceX for their efforts developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.

Behnken and Hurley opened hatches and entered the ISS at 1:22 p.m. Eastern, joining NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

The spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 at 3:22 p.m. Eastern May 30, marking the first crewed orbital launch from the United States since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in July 2011. Behnken and Hurley said in a brief NASA TV session early May 31 that the spacecraft was working well.

That included using the manual controls of the spacecraft, which ordinarily operates autonomously. “I want to complement the teams at Hawthorne. Just a spectacular job with the simulator as the vehicle flew exactly like the simulators out in Hawthorne,” Hurley said, referring to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Behnken, though, noted that those simulators weren’t able to fully capture the experience of launch. “Doug and I were talking about all of the observations that we had all the way uphill,” he said. “While it was an exciting ride, I think we got a couple of minor surprises, just in terms of the way the vehicle is moving and shaking.”

While docking took place only 19 hours after liftoff, the two astronauts said they were able to test various aspects of the spacecraft, including the ability to sleep inside the capsule. “Doug and I had a good night’s sleep last night,” Behnken said. “We were surprised, I think, at how well we actually slept aboard the vehicle.”

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LIVESTREAM: Watch SpaceX dock NASA astronauts with an orbital space station

Just 19 hours after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, SpaceX could be just half an hour away from docking NASA astronauts with a massive orbital space station known as the ISS.

Thus far, things have gone spectacularly smoothly. Marking Falcon 9’s first crewed launch ever, things went about as well as they could have from liftoff through orbital insertion. Reusable booster B1058 even managed to safely land aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) for the first time, hopefully ensuring many more flights for the SpaceX rocket over the next several months and years. In fact, according to a NASA rocket certification engineer, the space agency may actually certify flight-proven SpaceX rockets to launch astronauts, meaning that B1058 (or possibly B1061) could help send even more humans into orbit sometime in the near future.

(SpaceX/NASA)
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are visible (top left) aboard Crew Dragon (right) as they approach an orbital space station the size of a football field (bottom left). (SpaceX/NASA)

For now, though, tune in live at the link below to watch as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft guides NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time ever. If successful, the docking will mark the first time in almost nine years that US astronauts have reached the space station aboard an American spacecraft.

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Watch the astronauts give a tour of their new Crew Dragon spacecraft

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken give a video tour of their new SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft as they close in on a docking with the International Space Station on May 31, 2020.

Video: SpaceX.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon astronauts are chasing the space station around Earth

The morning of SpaceX’s most prolific launch – the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission – began with one question on the mind of many, why did the Falcon 9 rocket have just one second, and one second only, to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS)? A simplified answer is orbital mechanics and a carefully planned out 19 hour trip around the planet.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley pushes through the Earth’s’ atmosphere experiencing a period of maximum aerodynamic pressures called Max Q. (Credit:
Richard Angle for Teslarati)

The launch of the Falcon 9 was a highly anticipated moment, however, it was easily the most familiar part of the Demo-2 mission. Leading up to Demo-2, SpaceX had successfully launched twenty-eight Block 5 Falcon 9 boosters – the same type of booster that the Crew Dragon carrying Behnken and Hurley would launch on. The landing of the Falcon 9 on the autonomous spaceport drone ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was also a familiar process that SpaceX had completed successfully a number of times.

A diagram depicts the launch, separation, and landing sequence of the Falcon 9 booster and Crew Dragon capsule. (Credit: SpaceX/NASA)

Even the Crew Dragon capsule had a launch and mission to the space station under its belt, however, launching astronauts aboard the capsule had yet to be attempted, let alone done successfully. The least familiar part of the mission was what Crew Dragon and its occupants had to achieve once free of the Earth’s gravity well.

Once past launch and separation from the Falcon 9 first stage booster, Crew Dragon would separate from the Falcon 9 second stage, enter an initial orbit, and proceed to spend the next nineteen hours chasing the ISS around the planet. The capsule had to perform a series of burns to lift its orbit high enough to match that of the ISS for autonomous docking nineteen hours later. During the trip, Behnken and Hurley had a series of items to check off prior to initiating their crew sleep aboard Crew Dragon. A few of the items included doffing – or taking off – their SpaceX pressure suits, hosting a brief media opportunity explaining the name “Endeavour” chosen for their capsule as well as the zero-G indicator named “Tremor” chosen to ride along with them and eat their first meal in space.

A diagram describes the different timeline milestones of the Crew Dragon capsule as it completes is trip to the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX/NASA)

The Crew Dragon also had a few jobs of its own to complete. Crew and capsule would spend about two hours performing 3 different burns of the sixteen Draco thrusters outfitted all around the Crew Dragon’s outer shell. The first phasing burn was needed to insert it into the correct orbit, followed a little while later by a boost burn to raise the capsule’s orbit even more. And lastly, a close coelliptic burn to flatten out the orbit around the Earth making it more elliptical, rather than circular matching that of the ISS. These three burns were completed while the crew was awake performing any necessary tasks. Two more burns remained to be completed, but those would need to occur much closure to docking with the ISS, one while the crew slept and one just before autonomous docking procedures were set to begin.

A diagram of the different burns of the Draco thrusters that the Crew Dragon capsule would need to perform to match the orbit of the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX/NASA)

The fourth burn – a transfer burn – is intended to raise the capsule the final ten meters in orbital space to match that of the ISS. This burn will allow the capsule to begin its final approach toward the station. It will be completed by the SpaceX mission control ground station in Hawthorne, California while the crew sleeps. It will be a gentle burn of the Dracos lasting less than a minute.

The capsule will then burn the Draco thrusters once more for the final coelliptic burn matching its orbit directly with the ISS. At this time, the crew aboard both the Crew Dragon capsule and space station will be awake for a full day of work including the meticulous process of autonomously docking the capsule to the ISS, the opening of the hatch of Crew Dragon, and welcoming Behnken and Hurley aboard the station as members of the Expedition 63 crew.

Crew Dragon is expected to meet up with the ISS nineteen hours after liftoff. Docking with the station is set to occur on Sunday, May 31st around 10:30 am EDT/14:30 UTC. Behnken and Hurley will be welcomed aboard the station during a traditional crew welcoming ceremony that should occur about two hours after docking has been confirmed.

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Dragon crew names their spacecraft Endeavour; complete first manual flight test

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT) on May 31 with downlink video.

Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

Hours after arriving in orbit, Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken completed their first manual flight test using touchscreen controls on the SpaceX’s new crew capsule, and revealed “Endeavour” as the name of their ship.

The astronauts entered Earth orbit around nine minutes after lifting off on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday, marking the first human spaceflight to originate from the Florida spaceport since the final space shuttle mission in July 2011.

The crew quickly got to work accomplishing key objectives of the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s first piloted test flight. They took off their SpaceX-made pressure suits and changed into more comfortable clothing, then Hurley began testing his ability to provide manual inputs to the capsule’s flight control system, which is normally designed to autonomously control the spacecraft’s movements.

Using touchscreen controls, Hurley prepared commands that would have changed the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s attitude, or orientation, in space. He stopped short of actually sending the commands to the Dragon flight computer.

“You’re more of a monitor of all the systems, and you’re not using all your brainpower to actually fly the vehicle,” Hurley said before launch. “That being said, the vehicle has manual capability in several phases, and we will certainly test that out because it’s just prudent to have an automated vehicle that has a backup capability manually in order to do what you need to do to complete the mission.

“Hopefully, it will make our job easier,” Hurley said. “It’s similar to what our Russian counterparts fly. The Soyuz is a mostly automated vehicle, but it does have manual backup capability as well, and it’s the way vehicles are being developed for the future. I think it’s the right way to fly vehicles in space, so hopefully that’ll be the answer that we come back with.”

Hurley, assisted by co-pilot Behnken, will perform a second manual flight test in close proximity with the space station less than an hour before its scheduled docking Sunday.

The touchscreen displays use similar technology as cars made by Tesla. SpaceX and Tesla were both founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Hurley and Behnken were involved in some of SpaceX’s design decisions involving the Crew Dragon spacecraft, acting as consultants. Hurley is a veteran Marine Corps test pilot, and Behnken was an Air Force flight test engineer before his selection as an astronaut.

“Ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface,” Hurley said. “Of course, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different. But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to kind of refine the way that you interface with a touchscreen and the way that your touch is actually registered on the displays in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, and potentially putting in a wrong input, those kinds of things.”

The SpaceX flight suits, which the astronauts wear during launch, docking, undocking and re-entry, have gloves specially designed to function with the touchscreens.

“I think it was challenging for us, and for them at first, to work through all those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from a manual flying standpoint, with a touchscreen, it flies very well” Hurley said. “You kind of interface with the vehicle such that the cameras are displayed on that same display, so you’re seeing the docking target, for example, when you’re maneuvering close to space station right in the same exact place you’re looking to fly the vehicle.

“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting an input in with the touchscreen relative to what you would do with a stick because … when you’re flying an airplane, for example, if I push the stick forward, it’s going to go down. I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with at touchscreen, if that makes sense. So it’s a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”

The space shuttle’s cockpit had numerous switches controlling a boggling number of systems, computers, pumps, circuits, heaters, valves, rockets and other components. There were also gauges and indicators telling astronauts the status of key spacecraft systems.

And the shuttle commander and pilot had control sticks to manually guide the spacecraft on landing. The astronauts could even take manual control during launch or re-entry in the event of a guidance failure.

Hurley was pilot on two space shuttle missions, including the last shuttle flight in 2011.

The Crew Dragon is designed to by fully autonomous, but there are a few opportunities for the astronauts to manually override the autopilot. The crew can dock the capsule with the space station, and there are physical buttons to de-orbit the spacecraft, control the ship’s fire suppression system, and deploy parachutes at the end of the mission. All those buttons would only be used if the automatic systems run into trouble.

A view of the few buttons on the Crew Dragon control panel. Many of the push buttons would be used during in-flight emergencies. Credit: SpaceX

In response to a question from Spaceflight Now, Behnken said the Crew Dragon’s touchscreen flying interface — often compared to a video game or a smartphone — was specifically developed for manual flying in the vicinity of the space station.

“When we evaluated the touchscreen interface, we really did focus on the task at hand, and trying to get a good performance for that specific task,” Behnken said. “I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is to not switch to a touchscreen necessarily, but for the task that we have, and the capability to kind of keep ourselves safe flying close to the International Space Station, the touchscreen is going to provide that capability just fine.

“It just might not the same thing you’d want to use if you were suited up and trying to fly an entry or an ascent, for example, like we were trying to do with the space shuttle.”

Hurley and Behnken announced after Saturday’s launch they have named their crew capsule “Endeavour” after the retired NASA space shuttle. The spacecraft is the third crew vehicle in the U.S. space program to be named Endeavour, after the Apollo 15 command module and shuttle orbiter.

“Without further ado, we would like to welcome you aboard capsule Endeavour,” Hurley said. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons — one because of this incredible endeavor NASA, SpaceX and the United States have been on since the end of the shuttle program back in 2011.

“The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I,” Hurley continued. “We both had our first flights on shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much for us to carry on that name.”

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NASA astronauts launch from U.S. soil for first time in nine years

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft take off from the Kennedy Space Center on the first orbital spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

Two veteran NASA astronauts rocketed away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday to begin a test flight of a new commercial spaceship designed, built and owned by SpaceX.

The long-awaited return of human spaceflight to the Florida spaceport marked just the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts flew into orbit on a new type of spacecraft, and the first time since the inaugural space shuttle launch in 1981.

With spacecraft commander Doug Hurley in the left seat and veteran astronaut Bob Behnken to his right, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (1922:45 GMT) Saturday.

Nine minutes later, the astronauts were in orbit, ending a nearly decade-long gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability that forced NASA to pay the Russian space agency for rides to the space station on Soyuz spaceships.

A previous launch attempt Wednesday was canceled due to the threat of lightning, and stormy weather again threatened Saturday’s countdown.

But a wave of showers and thunderstorms pushed through the spaceport and skies cleared sufficiently to allow the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to take off at Saturday’s instantaneous launch opportunity, a one-second window determined by the location of the space station’s orbital track.

Hurley and Behnken put on their white SpaceX-made pressure suits at NASA’s crew quarters Saturday, then rode a Tesla Model X car to pad 39A a few miles away. Once the astronauts arrived at the historic seaside launch complex — the departure point for all of NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions, and the first and last space shuttle flights — they rode an elevator up the tower and walked across a 50-foot (15-meter) access warm to board the Crew Dragon capsule.

A half-dozen SpaceX engineers wearing dark jumpsuits and masks helped Hurley and Behnken into their seats, then closed the Dragon’s hatch and evacuated the launch pad before the Falcon 9 was fueled for liftoff.

Nine Merlin 1D main engines powered the Falcon 9 northeast from the Kennedy Space Center with 1.7 million pounds of thrust, then a single Merlin upper stage engine tuned to fire in the vacuum of space propelled the Crew Dragon spacecraft into orbit.

Soon after the upper stage engine shut down, the Crew Dragon separated from the Falcon 9. Cameras mounted outside the rocket and inside the Dragon spacecraft beamed down live views throughout the climb into orbit, including video from inside the cockpit.

The spectacular imagery showed Hurley and Behnken in their flight suits as they soared into space. At eye-level, a three-panel touchscreen graphic display let the astronauts know where they were during ascent.

Thousands of spectators lined roadways in nearby communities to watch the launch. The crowds allowed on NASA property were significantly smaller, with limitations on the number of media representatives and VIPs present to see the historic crew launch.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended the launch, and Trump gave remarks inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building later Saturday.

The successful launch Saturday was a milestone for NASA, with the restoration of crew access to low Earth orbit from U.S. soil. The nine-year gap since the last shuttle mission in 2011 was the longest span of time since the first U.S. human spaceflight in 1961 that NASA did not have a way to send crews into space on domestic rockets.

Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel who hails from Upstate New York, is the spacecraft commander on the Crew Dragon test flight, designated Demo-2, or DM-2. His responsibilities include launch, landing and recovery operations.

Behnken is the joint operations commander for the Demo-2 test flight. The 49-year-old Missouri native will be responsible for activities once aboard the International Space Station.

“Enjoy your new spaceship,” radioed Jason Aranha, a spacecraft communicator at SpaceX’s mission control in Hawthorne, California.

“We are definitely doing that,” replied Hurley a couple of hours after launch. “It’s been a spectacular spaceship so far. Congrats to the Dragon teams, and obviously everybody there in Hawthorne that’s done all this work to get us up here.

“It was quite a ride,” Hurley said. “Everybody go home and kind of remember this moment. It’s been pretty incredible.”

Hurley later completed a manual flight test to demonstrate the crew’s ability to command manual inputs to the Crew Dragon’s flight control system. The spacecraft is designed to operate autonomously, and is scheduled to use the autopilot mode for docking with the space station at 10:29 a.m. EDT (1429 GMT) Sunday.

The astronauts also downlinked live video from inside the spacecraft before beginning an eight-hour sleep.

Hurley and Behnken announced they are naming the capsule “Endeavour” after the retired NASA space shuttle. The spacecraft is the third crew vehicle in the U.S. space program to be named Endeavour, after the Apollo 15 command module and shuttle orbiter.

“Without further ado, we would like to welcome you aboard capsule Endeavour,” Hurley said. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons — one because of this incredible endeavor NASA, SpaceX and the United States have been on since the end of the shuttle program back in 2011.

“The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I,” Hurley continued. “We both had our first flights on shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much for us to carry on that name.”

But this Endeavour is different than the past space vehicles that carried the name. Instead of being a government-owned spaceship, the Crew Dragon is owned by SpaceX. And it’s controlled by SpaceX engineers in Southern California, not by NASA controllers and contractors in Houston.

The change is a significant step toward the commercialization of spaceflight, a strategic objective of NASA, which says the change will bring about lower costs and more innovation in the space transportation industry.

NASA is looking to incorporate commercial elements in its architecture to return humans to the lunar surface. The agency last month announced SpaceX and two other companies won contracts to advance development of human-rated lunar lander vehicles.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk celebrates after Saturday’s launch. Credit: Walter Scriptinas II / Spaceflight Now

The launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft Saturday was a turning point for SpaceX, the once-upstart space company founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk. It comes after years of development, including delays caused by funding shortfalls in congressional budgets and technical setbacks, including a pair of issues in the last year involving the crew capsule’s launch abort system and parachutes.

Musk said he was “quite overcome with emotion” after the Dragon launch Saturday.

“It’s been 18 years working toward this goal, so it’s hard to believe that it’s happening,” Musk said. “We haven’t quite yet docked safely with the space station, and of course, we need to bring them back safely, and we need to repeat these missions and have this be a regular occurrence. So there’s a lot of work to do.”

Nevertheless, Musk and NASA officials were in celebratory mood after Saturday’s launch.

“It’s been nine years since we’ve launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and now we have done it again,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The Demo-2 astronauts will live and work on the International Space Station for one-to-four months before coming back to Earth for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just east of Cape Canaveral. The final duration of their test flight will be primarily determined by the performance of the capsule’s solar arrays in orbit, mission managers said earlier this month.

Hurley and Behnken were two of four NASA astronauts selected in 2015 to train for commercial crew missions on SpaceX and Boeing capsules. NASA assigned the two-man crew to the SpaceX Demo-2 mission in 2018.

NASA has signed a series of funding agreements with SpaceX since 2011 valued at more than $3.1 billion. With NASA funding and technical oversight, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Boeing has received a similar series of contracts from NASA — valued at more than $4.8 billion — to develop the Starliner crew capsule.

But those figures include NASA payments to the contractors to cover crew transportation services, once the Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles are operational. Phil McAlister, NASA’s head of commercial spaceflight development, said May 13 that the space agency invested around $5 billion toward Crew Dragon and Starliner design and development.

The companies also put in an unspecified level of private funding, a requirement under the public-private partnership arrangement pursued by NASA’s commercial crew program since 2010.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) suit up for Saturday’s launch at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

With Saturday’s launch, SpaceX became the first private company to put people into orbit. The achievement follows SpaceX’s earlier milestones, such becoming the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station in 2012.

SpaceX has also carved out a leading place in the global commercial launch industry, and is a trusted contractor to launch satellites for the U.S. military.

But SpaceX’s long-term vision — as laid out by Musk — is interplanetary space travel. And launching people into space is a core mission for the company.

NASA and SpaceX received numerous congratulatory messages, including from Sergei Krikalev, a veteran cosmonaut who now needs human spaceflight programs at the Russian space agency.

NASA has paid the Russian government approximately $3.9 billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report last year by NASA’s inspector general.

Most recently, NASA agreed to pay the Russian government $90.2 million for a single Soyuz seat on a launch this October. The U.S. space agency decided to sign the agreement to guarantee access to the space station for a NASA crew member in the event of additional delays in the new U.S. crew capsules.

Assuming Hurley and Behnken’s test flight goes according to plan, the first operational Crew Dragon launch is scheduled from the Kennedy Space Center no earlier than Aug. 30 with a four-person space station crew.

Boeing’s Starliner spaceship — facing delays after a problem-plagued unpiloted test flight last December — will have to perform a second automated demonstration mission before it is cleared to fly astronauts. The Starliner’s crewed test flight to the space station is now expected in the first half of 2021.

A report by the NASA inspector general last year concluded the space agency is paying roughly $55 million per round-trip seat on Crew Dragon missions, and $90 million for a Starliner ticket to the space station. Both capsules will typically carry four astronauts on missions to the International Space Stations.

NASA expects to end payments to Russia once the new U.S. crew ships are operational. Under the space agencies’ current plans, U.S. astronauts will continue flying on Soyuz spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts will launch and land on the new U.S. vehicles under a barter arrangement, with no funds exchanged.

But Russian officials say they are not assigning cosmonauts to missions on U.S. vehicles until they are flight-proven.

Russia’s partnership with NASA on the International Space Station program on a technical level has been an unqualified success. Without Russian spacecraft, U.S. astronauts could have not flown to and from the station in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, or since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011.

But the political relationship has been tortured at times.

One low point came in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. That prompted the Obama administration to levy U.S. sanctions on Russian government entities, and some individuals, including then-Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is now the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin suggested on Twitter in 2014 that the United States “deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”

“The trampoline is working,” Musk joked Saturday.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.