But it’s not over yet. Critical weeks of safety and technical reviews of the spacecraft lie ahead before NASA will officially designate Crew Dragon as an “operational” vehicle. Then, another Crew Dragon spacecraft must be deemed ready for the next mission, dubbed Crew-1, that will carry four more astronauts to the space station: NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi.
NASA is hoping to launch Crew-1 in August.
The mission Behnken and Hurley began over the weekend won’t be considered a success until they return safely to Earth, but their mission is expected to last up to 110 days, and the journey home will be just as perilous as the ride to orbit.
Crew Dragon’s debut, however, is a significant milestone for SpaceX and NASA, and this mission was one of the biggest items both organizations needed to check off the list before turning to larger ambitions.
Access to the International Space Station
At times, delays with development of both the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsule have threatened to leave the US portion of the ISS understaffed.
But, after years of anticipation, Crew Dragon capsules are poised to begin making regular trips to and from the space station, allowing NASA to take more control over staffing the ISS. The space agency hopes to have more hands on deck, creating more opportunities for conducting scientific experiments and maintaining ISS operations.
Artemis: NASA’s next moon mission
NASA’s ambitions extend far beyond the ISS, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth.
For the latter task, SpaceX proposed using the Starship system — a spaceship and rocket that the company is in the early stages of developing at remote facilities in South Texas.
Musk has spent a significant amount of time overseeing that work in Texas lately. And the latest iterations of Starship prototypes haven’t survived very far into the testing process.
SpaceX’s Mars ambitions
The company is building a multibilllion-dollar telecom business, Starlink, that SpaceX hopes will help fund development of the Starship program, and the company continues to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from private investors.
The origin of Starship, after all, is not with NASA or its Artemis Program. Starship is at the core of SpaceX’s stated founding mission to establish a colony of humans on Mars.
Technologically speaking, that milestone is likely still a long way from reality.
But Musk, speaking to reporters after Saturday’s Crew Dragon launch, reaffirmed his commitment to Mars as he breathlessly celebrated Hurley and Behnken’s safe departure.
“I am sort of overcome by emotion. To try to come up with cohesive sentences that make any sense is quite difficult,” Musk said before adding, “But I think this is, hopefully, the first step on a journey towards civilization on on Mars.”