SpaceX has hit a milestone for its Crew Dragon capsule, with an unmanned version of the capsule blasting off to meet up with the International Space Station (ISS). If testing goes well, the goal is to enable the U.S. to send its astronauts into orbit for the first time since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired. SpaceX sent the Crew Dragon capsule into orbit mounted atop one of its own Falcon 9 rockets.
No humans were aboard the Crew Dragon capsule for this test launch; the only passenger was a test dummy called Ripley, a reference to the classic sci-fi/horror film Aliens. The launch went off without a hitch and the rocket separated from the capsule about 11 minutes after liftoff. The capsule is now on its way to the ISS and the three astronauts currently living on the ISS will greet the capsule early Sunday morning, if all goes well.
To avoid wasting a trip to the ISS with no goodies for the crew, in addition to Ripley, the capsule also carries 400 pounds of supplies and test equipment. Musk told reporters after the launch that he was "a little emotionally exhausted" but noted that the launch "worked." SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule will stay at the ISS for five days, and during its stay, the ISS crew will inspect the cabin of the capsule and perform tests.
SpaceX and Boeing are both building capsules that will take astronauts into space, if testing and trials go well. It's too early to tell which of the competing companies might be the first to ferry astronauts into space from American soil since 2011, when the Space Shuttle fleet was mothballed. NASA gave SpaceX and Boeing Co. $6.8 billion to build their rocket and capsule systems. SpaceX faced significant delays before the successful test launch of the Crew Dragon and it remains unclear if it will be able to meet the goal of sending humans into space in 2019. SpaceX recently laid off a significant number of employees in an effort to trim down and free up funds for the company's interplanetary goals.