While the whole world watched with bated breath, NASA arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday after a landmark 19-hour journey on the first crewed US spacecraft in nearly a decade, a triumph for SpaceX and private enterprise. This is the first mission to have reached mars on a spacecraft built by a private enterprise.
The arrival completed the first leg of the trip, designed to test the capabilities of the Crew Dragon capsule. However, the mission will only be declared a success when the astronauts return safely to Earth in the same capsule in a few months’ time.
US astronauts enter space station: the landing described
The spaceship’s hatch opened at 1:02 pm Eastern Time (1702 GMT) as Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley carried out final procedures before crossing the threshold about 20 minutes later.
Wearing black polo shirts and khaki pants, they were greeted by fellow American astronaut Chris Cassidy, as well as Russia cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
The five men posed for photos and then NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke to the crew from mission control in Houston.
“Welcome to Bob and Doug,” said Bridenstine. “I will tell you the whole world saw this mission, and we are so, so proud of everything you have done for our country.”
“It’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business and we’re just really glad to be on board this magnificent complex,” replied Hurley.
SpaceX Crew Dragon: a rough ride to the space station
SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket began its voyage Saturday, blasting off flawlessly in a cloud of bright orange flames and smoke from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
“I’m really quite overcome with emotion,” Musk said. “It’s been 18 years working towards this goal.” Hurley and Behnken had named their capsule “Endeavour” after the retired Space Shuttle on which they both flew.
Asked by a lawmaker how the Crew Dragon’s handling compared to that of the shuttle, Behknen indicated the new ship was a rougher ride.
“Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit, and we were definitely driving or riding a dragon all the way up,” he said. “And so it was not quite the same ride, the smooth ride, as the Space Shuttle was.”
Russia congratulates but is bemused over ‘hysteria’
Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin also offered his congratulations to both NASA and Elon Musk, the boss of the private aerospace company SpaceX that built the Crew Dragon capsule.
— New Straits Times (@NST_Online) June 1, 2020
The capsule spent 19 hours chasing down the station at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kph), before carefully aligning to its target and slowing to a crawl for the delicate docking procedure, which took place over northern China.
Moscow space officials on Sunday said they were puzzled by “hysteria” around the successful SpaceX flight as Elon Musk taunted Russia and US President Donald Trump vowed to beat it to Mars.
On Saturday, SpaceX made history by becoming the world’s first commercial company to send humans into orbit, leading Russia to lose its long-held monopoly on space travel.
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, lobbed a jab at Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian space chief who once said Washington may one day be forced to “deliver its astronauts to the ISS by using a trampoline”.
“The trampoline is working,” quipped Musk at a post-flight news conference alongside NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Both men laughed. “It’s an inside joke,” Musk added.
Rogozin remained conspicuously silent for most of Sunday but offered his congratulations to Bridenstine after the Crew Dragon capsule with two NASA astronauts docked with the ISS.
“It’s safe to congratulate you at this point with a successful launch and docking. Bravo!” he tweeted.
“Please convey my sincere greetings to @elonmusk (I loved his joke) and @SpaceX team. Looking forward to further cooperation!”
In 2014, Rogozin, then deputy prime minister, mocked the lack of a US manned flight programme after Washington announced new sanctions against Moscow which included some space industries.
While Russia saluted the United States, it also stressed Sunday it was puzzled by the frenzy unleashed by what many hailed as the dawn of a new era.
“We don’t really understand the hysteria sparked by the successful launch of a Crew Dragon spacecraft,” Roscosmos spokesman Vladimir Ustimenko said.
“What should have happened a long time ago happened,” he added, tweeting excerpts of Trump’s congratulatory speech.
The quest to reach Mars: A new space race?
Speaking at the iconic Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the flawless SpaceX launch, Trump vowed that US astronauts would return to the Moon in 2024 “to establish a permanent presence and a launching pad to Mars”.
“And the first woman on the Moon will be an American woman and the first nation to land on Mars will be the United States of America,” he said.
“We are not going to be number two anywhere.”
During their stay Behnken and Hurley will perform more checks on the capsule to certify its readiness as the United States transitions to using the commercial sector for rides to the ISS.
The space agency has had to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets ever since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011 — with 2015 the original target for a replacement program.
The United States has paid SpaceX a total of about $7 billion for their “space taxi” contracts.
The Russian space agency shot back, saying it was not planning to sit idle, either.
“Already this year we will conduct tests of two new rockets and resume our lunar programme next year,” Ustimenko tweeted.
He did not elaborate but Rogozin has earlier said the country planned to conduct a new test launch of the Angara heavy carrier rocket this autumn.
Rogozin has also said Russia is pressing ahead with the development of its new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat, also known as Satan 2 by NATO’s classification.
In 2018, President Vladimir Putin boasted that the Sarmat was one of the new Russian weapons that could render NATO defences obsolete.
Russia had for many years enjoyed a monopoly as the only country able to ferry astronauts, and Saturday’s launch meant the loss of a sizeable income. A seat in the Soyuz costs NASA around $80 million.
Roscosmos insisted that the US still needed Moscow.
“It’s very important to have at least two possibilities to make it to the station. Because you never know…,” Ustimenko said.
Some officials in Moscow sought to downplay the US feat.
“This is a flight to the International Space Station, not to Mars,” said Alexey Pushkov, a member of the upper house of parliament.
The Russian space programme sent the first man into space in 1961 and launched the first satellite four years earlier.
But since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it has been plagued by corruption scandals and a series of other setbacks, losing expensive spacecraft and satellites in recent years.
The US launch and Musk’s joke set Russian social media alight, with wits ridiculing Rogozin and the Russian space chief’s name trending on Twitter.
“How do you like this, Dmitry Rogozin?” one critic prodded.
US astronauts enter space station amid pandemic and protests back home
The launch comes as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, and as the US faces nationwide protests after a black man died in Minneapolis while being arrested by a white police officer.
Speaking to Bridenstine, Hurley said he hoped the mission would inspire young Americans.
“This was 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 these lofty goals,” he said.
On Twitter, however, some retweeted the song “Whitey On The Moon” which was released by Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, the year after the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
“I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon)
The man jus' upped my rent las' night.
('cause Whitey's on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey's on the moon)” https://t.co/sR0np3PPTT
— Keeanga-Yamahtta T. (@KeeangaYamahtta) May 31, 2020
The lyrics juxtaposed the injustice and economic conditions faced by black Americans with the enormous spending required for the space program.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk