Max Q: SpaceX launches astronauts to orbit

This was a HUGE week in space: SpaceX flew its first-ever human spaceflight mission, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken hopping a ride on a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. It’s a milestone for commercial spaceflight, for the U.S. space program and for crewed exploration in general.


CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off today on an inaugural flight and will be the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Bob and Doug took off at 3:22 PM EDT on Saturday, May 30 after a few days’ delay due to weather. The launch vehicle performed its duty beautifully, including sticking the landing onboard SpaceX’s drone landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Good docking, too

SpaceX followed up its textbook launch with a picture-perfect Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. The ISS docking was fully automated, with SpaceX’s guidance and navigation systems handling the precise maneuver, which involves basically bumping the hatch of the capsule into the international docking adapter of the space station, after which point it runs a cycle of “hard sealing” the two together by driving metal pegs from one to the other.

This is the start of the commercial human spaceflight era

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken familiarize themselves with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the spacecraft that will transport them to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Their upcoming flight test is known as Demo-2, short for Demonstration Mission 2. The Crew Dragon will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In March 2019, SpaceX completed an uncrewed flight test of Crew Dragon known as Demo-1, which was designed to validate end-to-end systems and capabilities, bringing NASA closer to certification of SpaceX systems to fly a crew.

SpaceX became the first commercial space company to ever fly humans on orbit on Saturday, and that’s going to have far-reaching impact. Just like it did with the launch industry, SpaceX has the potential to essentially create an entirely new market out of thin air now that it can successfully launch people into space for a (relatively) low price.

Take a closer look at those snazzy spacesuits

Plenty was shiny and new about SpaceX’s astronaut launch, including the touchscreen control panels that were installed on Crew Dragon for use by the astronauts in case they ever needed to take over manual control. Bob and Doug made use of those for some demonstration maneuvering before handing back over control of the ship, but the more eye-catching new toy on the ship were those SpaceX spacesuits, which come in black, gray and white and use the red NASA worm logo. Can’t wait for the general public launch of these babies.

Not all roses for SpaceX last week

SpaceX had a really great week by any measure, but it wasn’t free of hiccups. At the company’s testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, one of its Starship prototypes met with a fiery end as it exploded following a static engine fire test. The development process for that future vehicle hasn’t been without some attention-grabbing test article rapid disassembles, but this was the most spectacular thus far.

Virgin Orbit didn’t get to orbit, but it did learn a lot

Virgin Orbit also had a key demonstration flight last week — its first-ever attempt to fly and launch its full system, including dropping its LauncherOne rocket from its carrier aircraft and having that make a try for space. LauncherOne didn’t make it to space — a malfunction caused its own flight to end just seconds after it started, but the company says a lot went right, even if it didn’t make orbit on this try.

SpaceX signs Starlink test deal with U.S. Army

SpaceX and the U.S. Army have signed an agreement for the military to test out use of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet network, in order to determine if it meets their needs in the field. If the three-year test does work out, that could mean a big and lucrative government contract for SpaceX.