SPACEX’S CREW DRAGON DELIVERS NASA ASTRONAUTS TO ISS

Elon Musk’s rocket company is now the first private enterprise  to put a human into orbit. But, more importantly, the mission  restored America’s ability to launch astronauts from its own soil.

Spacex Dragon

A DOCK TO REMEMBER

SpaceX Crew  Dragon spacecraft approaches the space station  for docking in this artist’s concept. On May 31,  2020, the real Crew Dragon, carrying two NASA  astronauts, successfully carried out the depicted  docking maneuver. NASA/SPACEX

Private spaceflight company  SpaceX made history on  May 30, when its Crew Dragon capsule  safely reached orbit with two NASA  astronauts aboard. The next day, Crew  Dragon went on to successfully dock  with the International Space Station  (ISS). The historic mission marks the  first time NASA astronauts have blasted  off from U.S. soil since the Space  Shuttle Program ended in 2011. Appropriately, that final flight of  space shuttle Atlantis was piloted by astronaut Doug Hurley, who commanded May’s Crew Dragon Demo-2  mission. He was accompanied by fellow  astronaut Robert Behnken.

LAUNCH AMERICA 

For nearly a decade, NASA has had  to buy its astronauts seats on Russians Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS, which was built with some $200 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars, according to  some estimates. To celebrate the return  of crewed launches from U.S. soil, the space agency branded May’s historic  event “Launch America.” “This is a unique opportunity  to bring all of America together in  one moment in time and say: ‘Look  at how bright the future is.’ That’s  what this launch is all about,” NASA  Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a  press briefing before the launch.
As Crew Dragon blasted off, roughly  10 million people watched live — both  online and on TV; the event was carried  by all the major news networks. Back
in 2019, over 100,000 people traveled  to Cape Canaveral in Florida for Crew  Dragon’s uncrewed demonstration  flight. But the crowds at the Kennedy  Space Center were significantly smaller  this time around, primarily due to the  social distancing restrictions in place  to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, a palpable silence,  followed by raucous cheers, rang out  at Launchpad 39A as the astronauts  climbed to the heavens aboard Crew  Dragon. This same launch site has been  used to vault space shuttle flights into  orbit, as well as send Apollo astronauts  to the Moon.

As Crew Dragon entered low Earth  orbit, the rocket boosters from its  Falcon 9 launch vehicle descended back  to Earth, landing safely on SpaceX’s  drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.  This allowed them to be retrieved for  use in future missions. Such reusability  has proven to be the key feature that  makes SpaceX’s technology cheaper  than anything that has come before  it. And with “cheap” flights to space  now available, many think NASA is  in a prime position to reestablish its  dominant role in space.

“We’re bringing America back,  as it relates to human spaceflight,”  Bridenstine said at a joint press  conference with President Donald  Trump. “There was a day when there  was grass growing out of the runways  [at Kennedy Space Center]. But now, we  not only have the policy directive from  the administration, we also have the  budgets to match that policy directive  to put America preeminent in space.”

DAWN OF SPACE TOURISM


Crew Dragon autonomously docked  with the ISS on May 31 at 10:16 A.M.  EDT. And at the time of this writing,  the crew is aboard the orbiting research  laboratory, carrying out experiments.  It’s not yet clear exactly how long  Behnken and Hurley will remain on  board before returning to Earth, but  they’re expected to stay until sometime  in late summer or early fall. No matter  when they come back, the return trip  will serve as yet another pivotal test  for Crew Dragon. The capsule must  survive being superheated by Earth’s  atmosphere before it uses a collection  of parachutes to further slow down  and gently land in the Atlantic Ocean,  just off Florida’s east coast.
If the mission ends successfully, it  will complete SpaceX’s validation to  fly crewed missions to orbit — which  would be yet another first for the  private company. It should also allow  them to start flying tourists into orbit  in the not-too-distant future.

The company currently has two  available Crew Dragon capsules it can  use to ferry NASA astronauts to the ISS,  as well as a number of Cargo Dragon  capsules for sending supplies. But in  addition to its NASA contracts, SpaceX  already has been in talks with space  tourism companies about bringing  tourists to orbit. Each Crew Dragon  ship is designed to hold four NASA  astronauts or seven tourists, so humanity’s presence in space should increase  in the years ahead.

Actor Tom Cruise could be among  the first non-astronauts to take one  of those seats. SpaceX and NASA are  reportedly in talks with the star about  filming an upcoming movie in space.  So stay tuned, because the next few  years of human spaceflight are sure  to have many more surprising twists.  — ERIC BETZ

SpaceX

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