Above: The crew of Resilience inside the Crew Dragon cockpit. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX broke new ground in space flight again last month after successfully launching a crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Launched by a Falcon 9 booster from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 15, the mission marked the first operational flight for Crew Dragon after a successful test flight carried two astronauts to the ISS in May.

Falcon 9 and Resilience on the launchpad ahead of launch. Credit: SpaceX

“NASA is delivering on its commitment to the American people and our international partners to provide safe, reliable and cost-effective missions to the International Space Station using American private industry,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press release following the launch.
The crew, who named their spacecraft “Resilience”, included NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Twenty-seven hours after leaving Earth, the quartet arrived at their destination with 500 lbs. of scientific hardware and experiments to be conducted over the next six months. Instead of the usual maneuvers requiring a pilot at the helm, Dragon docked with the ISS autonomously—a feat reminiscent of a Tesla parking itself, only in a much trickier parking space.

Resilience crew members joined the current inhabitants of the ISS, Expedition 64, who include Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins. Together, the two crews make up the largest crew to live on the ISS at the same time. The three-seat capacity of Russia’s Soyuz capsule previously limited crew sizes aboard the ISS to six. Dragon’s four seats enable an extra hand on deck at the orbiting laboratory. Though quarters will be tight, a larger crew means more space research and experiments can be accomplished—and there are many on the mission agenda.

Among them are studies on how spaceflight affects the human brain, and the impacts of microgravity and optimized diets on crew health. In a continuing effort to grow food in space, crew members will also experiment with growing radishes in varying soil and light conditions. A cooling system for NASA’s next generation spacesuits will also be tested. With these experiments and others, humans will be better equipped for long-duration missions to far-flung destinations like Mars.

With NASA’s official stamp of approval on Dragon for human spaceflights, SpaceX will be ferrying crews of international astronauts to and from the ISS a few times a year—all while saving NASA tens of millions of dollars.

Commander Mike Hopkins (left) and Pilot Victor Glover (right) watch their screens as the Crew Dragon Resilience approaches the ISS just before docking on Nov. 16, 2020. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s latest flight is the first of six planned flights in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. With NASA’s official stamp of approval, SpaceX can begin ferrying international crews to and from the ISS a few times a years, saving NASA tens of millions of dollars. Crew Dragon is the only space vehicle to receive NASA certification since the Space Shuttle.

In Spring 2021, the Resilience crew will reenter their spacecraft, undock and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast where a recovery ship will retrieve them. Their return will mark the longest human space mission launched from the US to date.