Last month, NASA and its contractor SpaceX made history by launching the first manned Crew Dragon space vehicle into Earth’s orbit for a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). “Crew Dragon Demo 2,” as the mission is being called, was crewed by Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, both NASA astronauts, each of whom happen to be on their third spaceflight mission.
Hurley flew previously on space shuttle missions 127 (Endeavour) and 135 (Atlantis) in 2009 and 2011, respectively. STS 135 was the final flight for the U.S. space shuttle. Likewise, Behnken also previously flew on two space shuttles, missions 123 and 130 (both aboard Endeavour) in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
First flights for new U.S. space vehicles are nothing new, but are still relatively rare. Here are the major firsts for U.S. manned space systems that spring to my mind:
1961: Mercury capsule on a Redstone rocket (MR-3) – Alan Shepard
1962: Mercury capsule on a Atlas rocket (MA-6) – John Glenn
1965: Gemini capsule on a Titan rocket (Gemini 3) – Gus Grissom and John Young
1968: Apollo command module on a Saturn 1B rocket (Apollo 7) – Wally Schirra, Don Eisele and Walt Cunningham
1968: Apollo command module on a Saturn V rocket (Apollo 8) – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell Jr. and Bill Anders
1969: Apollo lunar module (Apollo 9) – Jim McDivitt and Rusty Schweickart
1981: Space shuttle – John Young and Bob Crippen
2020: Crew Dragon on a Falcon rocket – Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken
I did not include the ISS because the current discussion concerns space vehicles developed by the U.S. ISS is a spacecraft designed and built by multiple nations.
Obviously, there were many firsts occurring in the 1960s in terms of maiden flights for major U.S. manned spaceflight vehicle types. Notice the nearly 40-year gap between the first space shuttle flight in 1981 and the next type of U.S. manned space vehicle in 2020. That was essentially as planned because the space shuttle was designed to be the primary vehicle type, if not the sole one, to be used by the U.S. for several decades.
Along the way are abandoned designs for manned spacecraft littering the highway of history. The “Dyna-Soar” of the 1950s and 1960s was a pre-shuttle space plane that would be launched into space aboard a Titan rocket and land on a runway. One of the astronauts in the original Dyna-Soar program was Neil Armstrong, who eventually became the first human to walk on the moon. Unfortunately, Dyna-Soar did not make it off the ground before getting canceled.
In the 1960s, the Air Force had a parallel space program for launching a manned observing post in space for spying called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). A modified version of NASA’s Gemini spacecraft with a hatch through its heat shield would be used to carry two Air Force astronauts into space. The Air Force had its own astronaut corps, some of whom transferred to NASA upon the cancellation of the MOL reconnaissance program. Probably the best known of these was Bob Crippen who went on to pilot the first space shuttle mission.
Another previously pursued technology known as the “Single Stage to Orbit” culminated in unmanned launch and landing tests of the ¼-scale Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X), a monolithic single stage rocket that would blast into space and then land again using the same rocket engines for both. The program was canceled as being too impractical at the time.
The recently launched Crew Dragon and its astronauts are expected to remain aboard the ISS, working alongside the “Expedition 63” crew already on board, before returning to Earth at a to-be-determined date later this summer.