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SpaceX Falcon 9 Crew Dragon launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending its first Crew Dragon spaceship skyward with a spacesuit-wearing mannequin seated inside. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was sent into space atop a Falcon 9 rocket tonight, beginning a crucial test of a spaceship that’s destined to carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Liftoff took place right on time at 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday (11:49 p.m. PT Friday) from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the origin point for the last shuttle mission as well as for trips to the moon in the Apollo era.

Within minutes, the Falcon 9’s second stage put the uncrewed capsule into orbit, while the first-stage booster made a successful at-sea landing on a drone ship stationed hundreds of miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The late-night event, watched by hundreds of onlookers near the Florida launch site and thousands of webcast witnesses, kicked off the first orbital flight of a privately built spaceship designed to carry humans.

“Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence, getting us closer to once again flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said via Twitter. He called the mission a “revolutionary step on our path to get humans to the moon, Mars and beyond.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk looked tired but happy at a post-launch news conference. “To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted, because it was super-stressful,” he told reporters. “But it worked … so far.”

Although no humans are aboard this first Crew Dragon capsule, you could argue that there’s a mechanical crew member. SpaceX placed a spacesuit-wearing, sensor-laden mannequin in one of the Dragon’s seats, to gauge how rigorous the ride will be for actual astronauts later this year.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, shied away from calling the test device a dummy. “We call it a ‘smartie,’ and her name is Ripley,” he said at a pre-launch briefing.

The name pays tribute to the spaceflying character played by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” series of sci-fi movies. It also brings a bit of anthropomorphic gender balance to SpaceX’s test mannequins: For last year’s maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the test payload included a Tesla Roadster with a dummy nicknamed “Starman” in the driver’s seat.

The Crew Dragon is a dramatically upgraded version of the cargo-carrying Dragon that’s flown resupply missions to the International Space Station since 2012. “There’s hardly a part in common with Dragon 1,” Musk noted.

This mission is designed to test all of the spacecraft’s systems in advance of crewed missions later this year. Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said it’s critical to wring out as much of the risk posed by a brand-new type of vehicle as possible before people climb on board.

“This is an invaluable exercise for us, to learn in the space environment how these systems will be working, and then making sure that these systems are ready to go for when we’re going to put our crews on them,” she said during Thursday’s pre-launch briefing.

Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana said the uncrewed mission is also serving as a rehearsal for ground operations. “This isn’t just a test flight for the vehicle,” he told reporters at a launch-pad news conference on Friday. “This is a test flight for the entire leadership management team.”

In addition to Ripley — and a plush-toy Earth that was placed on one of the seats to serve as a “super high tech zero-g indicator,” in Musk’s words — the Crew Dragon is carrying 400 pounds of supplies and equipment for the station. The robotically controlled rendezvous is scheduled to take place early Sunday morning.

Over the past few weeks, Russian space officials have voiced concerns about whether there was adequate backup computer capacity on the Dragon for the crucial hookup. To address those concerns, NASA and Roscosmos worked out a plan to have the station’s three crew members ready to take shelter in a docked Soyuz spacecraft in case the rendezvous goes horribly awry.

Assuming all proceeds according to plan, NASA astronaut Anne McClain and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques will open the hatch, run tests and inspect the Dragon’s interior after docking. Meanwhile, cameras attached to the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm will inspect the exterior.

The Dragon is due to stay docked to the station for five days, and then unhook itself and descend to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown on March 8. “Obviously It’s something that we have to practice in preparation for actual crew flight, to make sure that we are fast on the right spot, that we have all the potential medical attention at the right time,” Koenigsmann said.

Musk ranked next week’s descent among the most crucial tests of the Crew Dragon. “I’d say hypersonic re-entry is my biggest concern,” he said.

NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to SpaceX and Boeing back in 2014 to develop commercial space taxis for transporting astronauts to and from the space station, in order to fill the gap left behind by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. In the interim, NASA has been paying the Russians as much as $80 million per seat for rides back and forth on Soyuz spacecraft.

Boeing is expected to send its Starliner space capsule on an uncrewed flight to the space station for the first time sometime this spring. The current schedule calls for SpaceX’s first crewed launch of the Crew Dragon to occur in July, for a trip to the space station known as Demonstration Mission 2 or Demo-2. Boeing’s first crewed Starliner launch is scheduled to take place no earlier than August.

The crews for those missions have already been chosen. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will ride the Dragon, while the Starliner will carry NASA’s Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke as well as Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson (a former NASA space shuttle commander).

There’s a good chance that the stated flight schedule will slip. “I think we’d all agree that we’re not ready for the Demo-2 mission,” Behnke told reporters.

For example, NASA wants to make sure SpaceX has fully addressed concerns about the Falcon 9’s composite-wrapped helium tanks, which were redesigned after a launch-pad explosion in 2016. The Crew Dragon’s parachutes are still being tested, and there may need to be some design tweaks made to the craft’s thruster system.

Additional “unknown unknowns” may well come to light during the uncrewed test flights, or during upcoming tests of the launch abort systems for the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft. Because of those uncertainties, NASA has been talking with the Russians about buying additional Soyuz seats just to make sure U.S. astronauts have continued access to the space station if further delays arise.

This is an updated version of a report that was first published at 11 a.m. PT March 1.

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