SpaceX launches trial astronaut taxi service to space station

ABC News  NASA

The Crew Dragon space capsule, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, is unmanned but it carries an astronaut test dummy named Ripley that is outfitted with numerous sensors to collect data from the flight. The test dummy was nicknamed Ripley after the main character in the "Alien" movies.

The first two post-launch milestones for Crew Dragon were successfully completed shortly separating from Falcon 9's second stage, as confirmed by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk during a post-launch press conference Saturday morning.

The two astronauts who are set to fly aboard Dragon as early as July, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, witnessed the Florida liftoff, then rushed to Southern California to watch Sunday's maneuver.

"Super high tech zero-g indicator added just before launch!"

A crowd cheered as the rocket blasted off in a ball of fire and smoke and flash of light early Saturday, within minutes reaching speeds upwards of 4,000 miles per hour as it gained altitude.

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Cargo versions of the Dragon have flown to the station 16 times since 2012, but the Crew Dragon represents a significant upgrade.

The Crew Dragon used the station's new global docking adapter for the first time since astronauts installed it August 2016.

Flight operations team members - some of them new to this - also need the six-day trial run, according to Kennedy Space Center's director, Robert Cabana.

The successful demonstration brings the US one step closer to once again sending people into orbit without relying on Russian space vehicles, which have ferried American astronauts to the International Space Station since NASA retired its shuttles in 2011.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine marked Saturday's launch with a tweet, writing that the moment marked "a new chapter in American excellence".

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The capsule is expected to reach the International Space Station and dock with it autonomously for the first time.

"I fully expect we're going to learn something on this flight", said Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa's head of human spaceflight. NASA and the Russians are discussing one last purchase, just to make sure USA astronauts have access to the station even if the start of space taxi service has to be delayed. Coincidentally, that adapter was delivered by a non-Crew SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

Dragon crew capsules will splashdown in the Atlantic not far from Kennedy. The Crew Dragon was designed with an emergency escape system that can carry people out to safety if something goes wrong.

"This flight test will inform the system design, operations and drive any changes that need to be made ahead of crew flights".

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