Early Saturday morning, SpaceX successfully launched its new Crew Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral, Florida — the start of a milestone test needed to certify the vehicle for carrying passengers.
Mounted on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, the Crew Dragon soared into space at 2:49AM ET and deployed into orbit just 11 minutes later. Following takeoff, SpaceX then landed its Falcon 9 on one of the company’s drone ships in the Atlantic — the company’s 35th successful landing overall. The capsule, now in orbit around Earth, will attempt to dock with the International Space Station early tomorrow morning. It’s the ultimate dress rehearsal for how the capsule will someday bring NASA astronauts to the orbiting lab.
The Crew Dragon is a crucial piece of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which revolves around developing private spacecraft to send people to and from the International Space Station. Through this program, two companies — SpaceX and Boeing — have been developing their own capsules that will be able to take NASA astronauts to space and then bring them back down to Earth. But before those capsules can carry people, NASA wants to see the vehicles in action.
This particular mission didn’t carry any living passengers. But a smart dummy named Ripley — equipped with multiple sensors and wearing a custom SpaceX suit — rode inside the capsule. Sitting in one of the four passenger seats, Ripley is gathering data about how the flight might affect the human body. SpaceX’s livestream also provided views of Ripley during the launch, both from inside the capsule and from the mannequin’s perspective. Additionally, a small, stuffed planet Earth was included inside the vehicle, a cute toy that indicated when the Crew Dragon had made it to microgravity by floating around in the capsule.
When the Crew Dragon, with Ripley on board, meets up with the ISS early on Sunday, the capsule will maneuver itself toward the station and attempt to attach itself to an available port, known as the international docking adapter. The adaptor was installed during a spacewalk in 2016, providing a parking spot for both SpaceX and Boeing’s incoming capsules. Using a series of lasers and software, the Crew Dragon should be capable of identifying the adapter and docking with it all on its own, without any help from the astronauts on board the station.
The Crew Dragon’s predecessor, the Dragon capsule, takes a different approach. When it takes supplies to the ISS, the cargo version is berthed, instead of docked. A crew member on board the ISS uses the station’s robotic arm to grapple the cargo capsule and bring it in toward a port. Crew Dragon, however, should not need any input from the crew on board. Instead, the three astronauts will gather inside the station’s windowed cupola to watch the capsule’s approach.
A few hours later, the hatch of the Crew Dragon will open, and there will be a small welcoming ceremony. The station crew — NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, and Russia cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko — will go inside the Dragon and retrieve more than 400 pounds of cargo, as well as greet Ripley. During its stay, the three crew members will perform various tests on the Crew Dragon to see how the vehicle is holding up in the space environment.
However, Crew Dragon won’t linger at the ISS for long. After it is fully checked out, it will be loaded up with cargo for its return to to Earth. Early Friday morning it will undock from the ISS and then make the plunge toward our planet. A system of parachutes will deploy to slow the Dragon down during its descent, allowing it to plunge safely in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida. From there, a SpaceX recovery vehicle will retrieve the Crew Dragon and carry it back to shore.
Stay tuned to The Verge as we follow each major milestone of this crucial test flight throughout the week.