It's not the same as taking a New York to Washington commuter flight or renting an Avis car, but the launch of four astronauts to the International Space Station in a SpaceX-built capsule on Sunday was a significant step in making space travel everyday and mundane do .
Rather than relying on spacecraft built by NASA or other governments in the future, NASA astronauts and anyone else with enough money can purchase a ticket for a commercial rocket.
"This really is a commercial launcher," said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, during a post-launch press conference, "and we are grateful to our partners at SpaceX for the deployment."
NASA referred to the Sunday night launch as the first operational flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, built and operated by SpaceX, the rocket company launched by Elon Musk. The four astronauts on board – three from NASA, one from JAXA, the Japanese space agency – left Earth from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A Crew Dragon brought two astronauts – Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley – to the space station in May, but that was a test flight to clean up any remaining glitches in the systems.
The four astronauts on this flight are Michael S. Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor J. Glover from NASA, and Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut.
NASA and SpaceX completed the certification process last week, which includes the Space Agency's seal of approval that SpaceX has met specifications for regular NASA astronauts in orbit. This launch, known as Crew-1, is a regularly scheduled trip that sees four crew members staying on the space station for six months.
"It marks the end of the system's development phase," said Phil McAlister, director of commercial space development at NASA, in a telephone interview with reporters Thursday. "For the first time in history there is a commercial ability of a private-sector entity to safely and reliably transport people into space."
Despite the bad weather – forecasts only gave a 50:50 chance of favorable conditions on the launchpad – the sky remained clear enough. At 7:27 p.m. Eastern time, the Falcon 9 rocket's nine engines came to life and lit the night sky as the rocket shot across the Atlantic.
After the Falcon 9 booster fell off the second stage, which was still in orbit, it turned and landed on a floating platform. SpaceX will of course now restore the boosters and use them again. The next quartet of astronauts will be brought to the space station on the same rocket stage next spring.
The Crew Dragon with the name Resilience is supposed to dock on Monday around 11 p.m. After a 27.5-hour drive, the capsule caught up with the space station, which is traveling at more than 27,000 km / h.
When Mr. Glover arrives, he will be the first black astronaut to serve on the station's crew in the 20 years that humans have lived on board the International Space Station. Other black astronauts had previously been on board the space station, but they were there for shorter stays during space shuttle missions that helped set up the orbiting outpost.
When asked for his thoughts on history writing during a press conference Monday, Mr Glover nodded modestly at the meaning.
"It's something to celebrate when we get there and I'm honored to be in this position and to be part of this great and experienced crew," he said. “And I look forward to getting up there and doing my best to make sure we are worth all the work that has been put into preparing us for this mission. You know, unlike the elections – those in the past lie or go back in the past – that mission is still ahead of me. So let's go there and I'll talk to you after I'm on board. "
He said last week in an interview with The Christian Chronicle, a publication of the Churches of Christ, that the milestone was "bittersweet."
"I've had some great colleagues who really could have done this, and there are some great people who will be behind me," said Mr. Glover. "I wish it had already happened, but I'm trying not to draw too much attention to it."
Charles F. Bolden Jr., who served as NASA administrator under President Barack Obama, said that while Mr. Glover was making history, he shouldn't feel burdened.
"Some of us have had the opportunity to speak to him regularly and reassure him and help him understand that he doesn't carry the weight of the world on his shoulders," said Mr. Bolden, who is also Black and nearly spent 700 hours in space as a NASA astronaut. "He shouldn't feel any unusual responsibility because he's black. He should just be another crew member and have a good time."
On Sunday afternoon, as the astronauts were preparing for launch, they were visited by Mr. Bridenstine and Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX.
For Mr. Bridenstine, this was the last astronaut launch he would see as the leader of NASA. In an interview with Aviation Week magazine last week, Mr. Bridenstine said that even if asked by the new Biden administration, he will not remain in his current role after the inauguration on Jan. 20.
SpaceX chief executive officer Mr Musk stayed out of sight after saying he had "most likely" a "moderate case" of Covid-19.
On the space station, the four astronauts who started on Sunday will join three more: Kate Rubins from NASA and two Russians, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.
They will do what astronauts have been doing on the space station for the past two decades: overseeing scientific experiments, performing maintenance, speaking to students on site.
For example, the astronauts will collect their own biological samples to help local scientists study how dietary changes affect the body. The astronauts will also grow radishes, the latest experiment to see if food can grow in space. (Red lettuce and mizuna mustard greens are among the earlier foods the astronauts studied.) They will also test whether mushrooms can break down asteroid rocks and help extract useful metals – a scientific prelude to alien mining and a continuation of a similar one, successful experiment with bacteria.
When Crew Dragon goes into operational status, the space station's crew can be increased to seven. Since the departure of the space shuttles, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has been the only means for astronauts to travel to and from the space station. The Soyuz only has three seats and can also be used as a lifeboat in an emergency – with two Soyuz docked there, the maximum crew size was six.
However, there is currently no space for seven astronauts. "We only have one crew quarters on board at the moment," said Hopkins during a press conference on Monday. “It is planned to have a temporary station up there. I am not sure when it will arrive. It might arrive in the middle of the mission or it might not come up there while we're on board. "
Mr. Hopkins, the commander of the SpaceX crew, said he could sleep in the Crew Dragon instead.
During the post-launch press conference, Ms. Shotwell said SpaceX will launch about seven kite missions over the next 15 months, some to launch astronauts and some to move cargo. That would be almost all for NASA, she said, but it was possible there might be one for a private customer.
Some companies have announced that they will buy Crew Dragon flights to attract wealthy individuals for a vacation out of this world. One company, Axiom Space, will bring three tourists to the space station, maybe by the end of 2021.
One passenger could be actor Tom Cruise. Mr. Bridenstine confirmed in May that NASA is working with Mr. Cruise to make a movie on the space station.
Michael T. Suffredini, the president and general manager of Axiom Space, would not confirm whether Mr Cruise was booked on the Axiom flight, saying the company does not disclose any information about its customers.
Last week, Axiom said all three available seats had been sold. Fourth place would be occupied by an Axiom employee, Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut.
The other company, Space Adventures, offers a free-flying Crew Dragon flight that does not dock with the space station, but rather flies around the earth in a highly elliptical orbit that allows passengers a view of the planet from a very high point perch .
Mr Bridenstine, in his remarks at the closing of the press conference on Sunday evening, reiterated what he has said many times that a new era is opening for NASA and the space industry.
"We are now going on basic operational missions that are commercial in nature and where NASA is a customer." He said, "Our goal was and is to be a customer of many customers in a very commercial market in near-earth orbit."
Katherine J. Wu contributed to the coverage.