History was made at Cape Canaveral yesterday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the history everyone was expecting to be made. On the agenda was the first launch in the history of human spaceflight with a private company in charge of the mission. Only it was the mission that wasn’t. The launch was scrubbed mere moments before the scheduled liftoff due to weather concerns.
Were you oblivious to this historic event? Have you been living under a rock and erroneously thinking the only thing going on in the world is the pandemic? Not to worry. You have time before the rescheduled launch Saturday afternoon to get up to speed on the new face of America’s space program. Or is it America’s space program?
In years past, space programs have been run by countries. Only three of them so far, the United States, Russia, and China, have achieved launching humans into space. Countries are so last year though. Commercial entities are the future of space programs.
It wasn’t Uncle Sam running the show for the scrubbed launch. No, Elon Musk’s California-based company, SpaceX, was in charge. The transportation system being used to lift the astronauts up into Earth’s orbit, the Dragon capsule atop the Falcon 9 rocket, was designed and built by SpaceX. Elon sure does like X’s in names whether it is his latest baby crazily named X Æ A-Xii or his business baby, SpaceX.
Where is NASA in this you might wonder as I did. NASA is bankrolling SpaceX’s efforts. The company was awarded approximately $3.1 billion (that billion with a B) under the Commercial Crew Program to develop spacecraft to replace the shuttle. SpaceX owns and operates the spacecraft which will be seen lifting off when it ultimately does liftoff.
Despite SpaceX being three years behind on the goals outlined for the program, NASA believes the Commercial Crew Program should save the agency between $20 billion to $30 billion. Even so, it is still pretty pricey to book an astronaut a ride on a SpaceX flight. NASA’s Inspector General estimates the per seat cost is $55 million. That’s one expensive ticket to ride that astronaut’s got!
Not only was the scrubbed launch the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts in space for NASA, but it was also to be the first astronaut launch from Florida in nine years. The space shuttle program ended back in 2011 with the final flight of the shuttle Atlantis.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. It may be SpaceX running the show instead of NASA, but there are some familiar features to the current mission. First, there’s a new vehicle, but the same astronaut. Doug Hurley was the pilot of the last shuttle flight back in 2011. Hurley, a 53 year old retired Marine colonel, is also one of the two astronauts forming the SpaceX crew for this flight.
The capsule, called the Dragon Crew (What? No X in the name?), in which the astronaut crew is riding has a familiar look; it is cone-shaped like the capsules used pre-shuttle program. And Elon is into recycling; this capsule is recoverable. It will not land on a runway like a space shuttle but will splash down in the Atlantic. Such a return from space has not been seen for about 50 years when it occurred in the early years of the U.S. space program.
The space crew is not boldly going where no man has gone before. In fact, people have been there and done that for some time. What’s that? The destination is the International Space Station (ISS), a $100 billion orbiting lab, where the astronauts will spend 1-4 months.
But there are some big differences between this flight and past ones too. In the past throngs of people showed up on Florida’s Space Coast to view a launch. Now, however, the U.S. is in the midst of a pandemic. NASA has urged spectators to stay away due to health concerns. Those people who listened were glad they did since no launch even occurred Wednesday. The poor folks who showed up to see history being made may have noticed some interesting shaped clouds in the sky or perhaps some clever face masks on others in the crowd, but they did not witness a liftoff.
If you thought you could spot the astronauts because they’d be wearing the customary big, bulky orange spacesuits, you’d have missed them. White trimmed with black is the new orange. SpaceX designed and built its own spacesuits for the commercial crew. These outfits are custom-fit, one-piece, two-layer pressure suits. Who says you can’t be fashionable when you are conducting a scientific mission? Not Elon Musk!
And the Astrovan taking the astronauts on the 9-mile ride to Launch Complex 39-A is history. No, an Uber will not be called. Instead, Elon is generously offering a gull-winged Tesla Model X with white and black trim (to match the spacesuits and the rocket) for ground transportation. Coincidentally (NOT!), Elon also is the CEO of Tesla. Busy guy, huh?
Once in the Dragon crew capsule, the astronauts will find a revamped interior. Who needs all those switches and knobs? Touchscreens have replaced them on walls which are now gleaming white instead of drab gray. With white spacesuits and white walls, hopefully the cameras will be able to spot where the astronauts are inside the capsule.
As with prior launches, the astronaut crew is heavy on military experience. Joining retired Marine Hurley is 49 year old Bob Behnken, an Air Force colonel. But these astronauts are modern men with modern spouses. Both are married to astronaut wives, Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur, who have flown in space. The spouses met when all were members of the astronaut class of 2000. Their romantic as well as astronaut futures were truly written in the stars.
Astronauts Hurley and Behnken, who have trained for four years for this mission, will have to wait a few more days to embark upon it. The next attempted launch is set for Saturday at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (or so). Unfortunately weather reports indicate a 60% chance of rain, cloud cover, etc. which would be incompatible with a launch. (But, then, we all know how reliable weather reports are….) If it has to be the third time for the launch charm, attempt #3 would occur on Sunday at 3:00:11 p.m. (ish).
The worst thing that will happen this weekend is that launches are postponed giving us news reports which have nothing to do with the pandemic. (Um, that’s not bad.) I’m hoping for the best case scenario where the news reporter covering the launch can say, “Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a flying Dragon crew capsule!”
Did you realize how enormously expensive it is to achieve manned space flight? Are you excited that manned space flights originating here in the U.S. are on tap again? Should manned spaceflights be a commercial as opposed to governmental activity? Do you plan to watch the rescheduled launch? Why or why not?