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NASA-SpaceX partnership makes history with successful test flight

The International Space Station (ISS) has hosted a number of research projects driven by technology transfer. But on May 30, the orbiting laboratory played a different type of T2 role, as the destination of two National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts who launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft for the first time in history.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was originally scheduled for earlier in the week but was postponed due to weather.

“Today a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I thank and congratulate Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, and the SpaceX and NASA teams for this significant achievement for the United States. The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars.”

Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. This is SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard, which will pave the way for its certification for regular crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

"This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” said Elon Musk, chief engineer at SpaceX. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

The program demonstrates NASA’s commitment to investing in commercial companies through public-private partnerships and builds on the success of American companies, including SpaceX, already delivering cargo to the space station.

“It’s difficult to put into words how proud I am of the people who got us here today,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. “When I think about all of the challenges overcome – from design and testing, to paper reviews, to working from home during a pandemic and balancing family demands with this critical mission – I am simply amazed at what the NASA and SpaceX teams have accomplished together. This is just the beginning; I will be watching with great anticipation as Bob and Doug get ready to dock to the space station tomorrow, and through every phase of this historic mission.”

SpaceX controlled the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Control Center Firing Room 4, the former space shuttle control room, which SpaceX has leased as its primary launch control center. As Crew Dragon ascended into space, SpaceX commanded the spacecraft from its mission control center in Hawthorne, California. NASA teams are monitoring space station operations throughout the flight from Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the space station on Sunday, May 31. After successfully docking, the crew was welcomed aboard the ISS, where they will become members of the Expedition 63 crew, which currently includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The crew will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew.

Space Tango, the Lexington, Kentucky-based company that makes much of the equipment used for microgravity research on the ISS, recognized the milestone achievement as a catalyst for the growing commercial space industry.

“Today we celebrate a historic milestone and congratulate both SpaceX and NASA,” said Space Tango CEO and Co-Founder Twyman Clements. “These efforts signal the beginning of a new era for Space and further develop an infrastructure for building a robust commercial space economy that expands the definition of global.”

Also contributing to the mission's success was the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which conducted centrifuge testing on Hurley, Behnken, and eight other astronauts in November 2018. The astronauts had to be able to reach forward and accomplish certain tasks on their control panels while being spun in the centrifuge, which mimics the effects of G-forces.

“It’s exciting that our centrifuge was one of several steps along the way to prepare these two astronauts for this upcoming launch,” said Brig. Gen. James Dienst, 711th Human Performance Wing commander. “AFRL’s experts and unique capabilities in human physiology seamlessly translate into the Space domain, and we are honored to be part of our country’s historic moment.”

The AFRL centrifuge is the Department of Defense's (DoD) only human-rated centrifuge, and it was designed to be agile and rapidly adaptable for any possible customer. Nearly two years ago, NASA was its first customer outside the DoD.

The agility of AFRL’s centrifuge rests in its interchangeable cockpits. The AFRL-NASA discussion began a few months prior to testing. Engineers from both teams began working to transform the centrifuge, more commonly used for fast-jet pilot training, into a system for astronaut testing.

“We were able to give NASA engineers 3-D models of the gondola in our centrifuge and then they designed their cockpit displays,” explained Scott Fleming, 711HPW centrifuge program manager. “We only had to add one shim and shave off an edge of one of the 50 manufactured parts; it was nearly an exact fit.”

NASA’s relationship with the Air Force dates back to Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the United States, which spanned from 1958-1963 and saw names such as Alan Shepard and John Glenn, among others.

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