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The Planetary SocietyMay 20, 2020

Your Guide to Crew Dragon's First Astronaut Flight

At a Glance

Nine years after the final Space Shuttle mission blasted off from Kennedy Space Center, humans are once again launching to orbit from the United States. On 30 May, NASA astronauts Bob Benkhen and Doug Hurley climbed inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle atop a Falcon 9 rocket and embarked on the world’s first orbital commercial spaceflight with astronauts aboard. 

The mission is the culmination of NASA’s commercial crew program, a partnership between NASA and private industry to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Unlike previous human spaceflight programs, NASA is a customer buying rides to orbit from commercial providers like SpaceX. It does not directly own or operate the spacecraft its astronauts will fly in.

Space firsts like this are rare. For NASA, it is a moment akin to John Young and Bob Crippen climbing aboard the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981—except this time it was a private company, not NASA, that launched the rocket. The last time a new spacecraft sent a human into orbit was 2003, when Yang Liwei performed China’s first human spaceflight aboard Shenzhou 5. For private companies, there is no comparison. Though Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space plane and its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, have carried humans beyond the boundary of space, no company has ever launched astronauts into orbit. 

How to watch

Benkhen and Hurley launched successfully on 30 May. They are scheduled to dock at the ISS on 31 May at approximately 7:29 PDT / 10:29 EDT / 14:29 UTC. You can watch the docking live at planetary.org/live.

Based on how smoothly the mission proceeds, NASA is expected to keep the astronauts aboard the station between 1 and 4 months. They will return to Earth in Crew Dragon, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Florida coast from where their mission started.

Why does this mission matter?

The mission, known as Demo-2, is a test flight to verify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is safe to transport astronauts to the ISS. Crew Dragon previously flew to the ISS in 2019 without astronauts aboard. 

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to launch its astronauts on Soyuz vehicles. Not only is this undesirable from a U.S. political perspective, it also represents a single point of failure for access to the space station. Not just NASA astronauts will fly aboard Crew Dragon—Japan’s Soichi Noguchi will be 1 of 4 crewmembers on the very next flight scheduled for September 2020.

Visit our commercial crew page to learn more about why and how NASA worked with private industry to create a novel approach to spaceflight in the wake of the Space Shuttle’s retirement:

We've also got an exclusive cost comparison of NASA's commercial crew program versus the agency's prior human spaceflight programs. Spoiler alert: It's a good deal.

While the Soyuz can only carry 3 astronauts, commercial crew vehicles will be able to carry more. This will allow NASA and its international partners to max out the station’s crew complement at 7, enabling more scientific research. Astronauts conduct research aboard the ISS that helps us learn about the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human body. They also test technologies that will be needed for human missions beyond low-Earth orbit. 

Visit our ISS page to learn more, including why the ISS shows that multiple countries and private companies can work together for the peaceful exploration of space:

Dig Deeper

We’ve dedicated 2 episodes of our flagship podcast, Planetary Radio, to this historical event. 

Former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver joined our 6 May episode to look back at the origins of the commercial crew program. As NASA’s associate administrator under President Barack Obama, Garver was one of the strongest advocates of commercial space development.

Former NASA astronaut and current SpaceX senior advisor Garrett Reisman joined our 20 May episode to give us an exclusive preview of the Crew Dragon mission. Reisman was a NASA astronaut who made 2 Space Shuttle flights to the ISS. During the first he served aboard the station for 3 months. 

The Planetary Society believes that NASA should create a pathway for the U.S. private sector to take on activities previously led by the government in low-Earth orbit. This will enable NASA to focus its resources on sending humans further out into space and helps foster a vibrant, exciting new industry for the nation. See more of our Principles for Human Spaceflight.

Get Involved

You and your community can take part in this historic moment in several ways. This mission is a great opportunity to advocate for space exploration by inviting your friends and family to take part in the excitement. The easiest way to get involved is to simply watch major mission milestones live at planetary.org/live and join in on the conversation about it on social media. 

You can also explain the role of NASA in this endeavor. Commercial crew, and the experiment with public-private partnerships, was the result of smart policy decisions made by NASA and White House leadership in the early beginning in the mid-2000s and continuing in the early 2010s. NASA didn’t sit back and wait for private industry to solve its problem of access to the ISS—it actively pursued this novel approach.

Now is also a great time to go outside and look for the ISS in the night sky. Use NASA’s Spot the Station website to find out when it will fly over your location, and encourage others to do the same. Depending on where you live and what time you look, you might even be able to see Crew Dragon approaching the station as a second, fainter point of light!

Finally, if you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut, you’ll want to try SpaceX’s Crew Dragon docking simulator. This free game lets you work with the same control interface that NASA astronauts use to manually pilot Crew Dragon. Ordinarily, dockings with the International Space Station are automated, but the astronauts can take manual control if needed. 

Three ways you can be a space advocate

Read more: Crew Dragon, International Space Station

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