Investing in Space

SpaceX is about to launch its first full NASA crew to the space station: Here's what you should know

Key Points
  • SpaceX is set to make history once again this year, as Elon Musk's space company prepares to launch the Crew-1 mission for NASA on Sunday evening.
  • NASA earlier this week certified SpaceX's system to carry astronauts, a major milestone that will see the company begin regularly flying humans to space.
  • "With this milestone NASA and SpaceX have changed the historical arc of human space transportation," NASA director of commercial spaceflight development Phil McAlister said.
The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft in the hangar ahead of the Crew-1 mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — SpaceX is set to make history once again this year, as Elon Musk's space company prepares to launch the Crew-1 mission for NASA on Sunday evening.

NASA and SpaceX completed the required reviews ahead of the mission, which is set to liftoff from launchpad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch comes less than six months after the company's historic final demonstration mission, a two-month test flight that resulted in the agency certifying SpaceX's system to carry astronauts.

"It marks the end of the development phase of the system," NASA director of commercial spaceflight development Phil McAlister told reporters on Thursday. "It may not seem that profound right now ... but I believe 20 years from now we're going to look back at this time as a major turning point in our exploration and utilization of space."

"With this milestone NASA and SpaceX have changed the historical arc of human space transportation," McAlister added.

How SpaceX beat Boeing in the race to launch NASA astronauts to space
How SpaceX beat Boeing in the race to launch NASA astronauts to space

One of the key factors for launching on Sunday remains the temperamental Florida weather. NASA and SpaceX on Sunday continued to move forward with the launch as planned, with liftoff set for 7:27 p.m. ET. The Air Force's 45th Space Wing forecast that the launch has a 50% probability of launching on Sunday given current weather concerns, which include rain and thick clouds. If NASA and SpaceX decide to postpone the launch, the next available launch opportunity would be Wednesday at 6:16 p.m. ET.

Musk, who was expected to be at Kennedy Space Center for the launch, notably shared on Saturday that he "most likely" has a "moderate case" of Covid-19, while also continuing to question the accuracy of the tests. NASA's coronavirus policy is that anyone who tests positive is required to quarantine away from the agency's facilities and self-isolate.

NASA will broadcast steady live coverage of the mission, from four hours before launch until the spacecraft docks with the International Space Station the next day.

Here is what you need to know about SpaceX's first launch of a full crew of four astronauts.

The historic significance

SpaceX's Crew Dragon "Endeavour" docked with the International Space Station.

SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft and fine-tuned its Falcon 9 rocket under NASA's Commercial Crew program, which provided the company with $3.1 billion to develop the system and launch six operational missions. Commercial Crew is a competitive program, as NASA also awarded Boeing with $4.8 billion in contracts to develop its Starliner spacecraft — but that competing capsule remains in development due to an uncrewed flight test that experienced significant challenges nearly a year ago.

Crew-1 represents the first of those six missions for SpaceX, with NASA now benefiting from the investment it made in the company's spacecraft development.

"The money that NASA put into this is a fraction of what they put into trying to get vehicles to do this in the past, so they were able to leverage their money really effectively with the private sector lending innovation," former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver told CNBC. Garver was a catalyst for the early days of Commercial Crew, helping the program receive its first funding under President Barack Obama's administration.

Ever since the Space Shuttle retired nearly a decade ago, the U.S. has paid Russia upwards of $80 million per seat to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. And even before that, with the Space Shuttle, Garver explained that the goal of NASA's human spaceflight efforts "was to lower the cost of humans getting to space" — a goal the Space Shuttle fell short, with analysts estimating that prior spacecraft cost about $1.75 billion per launch when adjusted for inflation.

"This is the only way, after 40 years of it being a fundamental goal of NASA, that we have achieved launching and returning humans to space for less, and in a more routine way, than we've ever been able to do it. And you can't do anything in space until you can get to low Earth orbit in a sustainable way," Garver said.

NASA expects that, in addition to getting a way to send astronauts to space, it will be getting a cost-saving option as well. The agency expects to pay $55 million per astronaut to fly with Crew Dragon, as opposed to $86 million per astronaut to fly with the Russians. Additionally, NASA earlier this year estimated that having two private companies compete for contracts saved the agency between $20 billion and $30 billion in development costs.

McAlister noted that SpaceX's system is now transitioning from development into operations. He said that it makes some at NASA "nervous" to call SpaceX's system operational, as "we don't want to ever just declare victory and say we were done learning." But Crew-1 represents the first operational mission for SpaceX as the spacecraft is carrying a full crew and is planned to spend six months in orbit. Additionally, SpaceX's system is operational in the sense that the company will now regularly provide flights to-and-from space.

"There were quite a few people in the beginning who said we would never see this day. But the NASA and the SpaceX teams persevered through challenges to achieve this milestone," McAlister said.

Beyond flying missions for NASA, SpaceX also plans to use Crew Dragon spacecraft for other missions. Those include space tourism, as the company has so far unveiled two deals to fly privately paying people to space on Crew Dragon as early as next year.

"Now the real space program can begin," Garver said.

The astronauts from NASA and JAXA

NASA astronauts (from right to left) Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi in their SpaceX spacesuits during Crew-1 pre-launch preparations.

Crew-1 is carrying four astronauts to the ISS: Three from the U.S. and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is the spacecraft commander, having been selected as an astronaut in 2009 and launching previously on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2013. Hopkins is a U.S. Air Force colonel and expects to complete his transition to the recently formed U.S. Space Force while at the space station.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover is the spacecraft pilot and Crew-1 represents his first spaceflight. He was selected to be an astronaut in 2013 and will be the first Black person to live on the space station. While six Black astronauts have visited the ISS before, Glover will be the first to stay as a long-term crew member.

NASA astronaut Shannon Walker is a mission specialist, selected by the agency in 2004. Prior to becoming an astronaut, Walker served as a flight controller for the Space Shuttle program — before herself joining one of the final Space Shuttle flights in 2010 on an 163 day mission to the space station.

JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi is a mission specialist who has flown to space twice before: Once with NASA on a Space Shuttle mission in 2005 and again on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft in 2009. He's spent 177 days in space between the two missions — and with Crew-1 will become just the third person in history to launch onboard three different spacecraft.

Notably, Crew Dragon's ability to carry four astronauts means NASA will now increase the continuous presence on the ISS to seven astronauts from six. This will allow for a significant increase in time spent on scientific research and experimentation, the agency said. The astronauts will "conduct hundreds of microgravity studies during their mission," NASA said, with Crew-1 also carrying new science hardware and experiments to the ISS. Those include in-space experiments like studying organs, dietary changes, growing radishes, and more.

The spacecraft: Crew Dragon 'Resilience'

The astronauts of the Crew-1 mission visit Crew Dragon Reslience in the hangar ahead of the launch.

Crew Dragon is the SpaceX capsule that will carry the crew, which this specific spacecraft being dubbed "Resilience" by the astronauts.

"We go to space with pride. Our name is Resilience – it is power to recover, will to restore, and we strive to survive," Noguchi told reporters ahead of the launch.

The spacecraft for the Demo-2 mission in May was named "Endeavour."

Crew Dragon is an evolved version of the company's Cargo Dragon spacecraft, which has launched to the space station 20 times. Just as Cargo Dragon was the first privately developed spacecraft to bring supplies to the ISS, so Crew Dragon is the first privately developed spacecraft to bring people. 

While SpaceX has not specified how much of its own funds it contributed to developing Crew Dragon, the company's president Gwynne Shotwell emphasized earlier this year that "SpaceX invests heavily in our products." Last year, Musk said SpaceX had invested on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars to fund Crew Dragon development.

Crew Dragon with its trunk stands just under 27 feet tall and 13 feet around. The spacecraft includes its own system of small rocket engines for directional control in space and a launch abort system in the event of an emergency. Its trunk is the large lower half that's covered in solar panels, which can carry cargo.

The spacecraft is designed to carry as many as seven people. It has a system of controls that is focused around touch screens, although NASA notes that Crew Dragon has a "robust fault tolerance built into the system." As the astronauts will be wearing custom SpaceX spacesuits, the touch screens work whether or not the astronauts are wearing gloves. The spacesuits are largely designed to protect the astronauts in the event that the spacecraft loses pressurization, with life support and power systems connected through a point on the spacesuit's leg.

Additionally, the astronauts are expected to manually control the spacecraft only for short periods. Even the very careful docking process, when Crew Dragon reaches the ISS, is expected to be done autonomously.

The rocket: Falcon 9

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched on the Demo-2 mission with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard.
NASA/Bill Ingalls

SpaceX's Falcon 9 is the workhorse of the company's growing fleet of rockets. It stands at nearly 230 feet tall and is capable of launching as much as 25 tons to low Earth orbit. 

The rocket booster was carefully scrutinized in the weeks prior to launch, as NASA delayed the Crew-1 mission after an engine issue on a different Falcon 9 rocket caused the abort of a mission for the U.S. Air Force. The company identified the issue as a small bit of masking lacquer that got trapped within the rocket engines during assembly. SpaceX found two engines on the Crew-1 rocket had this lacquer issue as well and, after the company replicated the problem during testing, SpaceX replaced the engines with new ones.

A few days before the Crew-1 launch SpaceX performed a static fire test of the full Falcon 9 rocket on the launchpad. The engines fired for seven seconds, showing that the booster no longer had the lacquer issue.

Crew Dragon sits in place of the rocket's nose cone at the top. After launching the spacecraft on its way, the large lower portion of Falcon 9, known as the "booster," will reenter the Earth's atmosphere and attempt to land on the company's drone ship in the ocean. SpaceX has landed its Falcon 9 rocket boosters 57 times.

The launch plan


Four hours before liftoff, the astronauts will suit up. About a half an hour later, the crew will walk out to their Tesla Model X rides, complete with NASA logos, which will drive from the astronaut quarters out to the launchpad.

With 2½ hours to go, the astronauts will strap into their seats in Crew Dragon and begin checking that all systems are good to go. Then, with just under two hours until launch, the hatch to the spacecraft will be closed. 

SpaceX will begin loading the rocket with fuel 35 minutes before launch, which will initiate a final series of processes and checks.

A few minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9′s booster stage will return and attempt to land on the company's barge stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

If anything were to go wrong in the last half hour before the launch and even during the launch, Crew Dragon will abort and fire its emergency escape system. The company performed a full test of that system in January with no one inside the spacecraft. That test saw SpaceX trigger the system during the most intense part of the launch to show that it could be done at any time.

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