NASA and SpaceX With Historic Astronaut Launch

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Issue 17, Volume 110

By Jenny Liu 

Cover Image

In the midst of a pandemic and strict social distancing regulations, few moments could draw crowds of more than 150,000 Floridians all over the state. But a historic launch seems to have done it.

There was a liftoff of two astronauts on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday, May 30, 2020. This launch was the new Demo-2 mission, the first in nine years on American soil. It was originally set for Wednesday, but was delayed due to inclement weather.

The two astronauts were Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken. They were among the first astronauts chosen to work on the developing commercial space vehicles in 2015. They were assigned to the first SpaceX flight in 2018.

Behnken and Hurley’s prior experience and qualifications prepared them well for the mission. Both of them were introduced as NASA astronauts in 2000. Behnken is the joint operations commander responsible for activities such as docking and undocking. He was previously a flight test engineer and colonel with the U.S. Air Force. Hurley is the spacecraft commander responsible for tasks such as launch, landing, and recovery. He was previously a fighter pilot and test pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The spacecraft docked at the ISS on Sunday, May 31, successfully completing the first part of its mission. Hurley and Behnken joined commander of the ISS Chris Cassidy as well as cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The docking went smoothly and even finished ahead of schedule.

Saturday’s launch was monumental for several reasons. It was the first launch of NASA astronauts from the United States since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, when the ISS was completed. The space shuttles’ engines, heat tiles, and aerodynamics made them both challenging to maintain and fly as well as expensive to operate.

By contrast, the builds of the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft are more advanced yet much simpler than the shuttles. They’re smaller, sleeker, and have greater computing power and touch screens to replace the buttons and joysticks used in earlier spacecraft. Other features include a new launchpad-to-orbit abort capability to save the crew in an emergency.

The launch is made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s the first visible success of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative started by the Obama administration back in 2010. It marks the shift from NASA launching its own missions to NASA relying on private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX to do so. This model is significantly cheaper because NASA no longer needs to divert resources from preparing astronauts to fly into space.

Initially, NASA turned to both SpaceX and Boeing to produce spacecraft for its astronauts, but the uncrewed test launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner back in December 2019 proved highly unsuccessful. It was not able to dock to the ISS, its principal objective. Naturally, that made room for SpaceX to be the first.

Demo-2 will be a demonstration to verify the spacecraft’s capabilities, including the crew’s transportation system and the spacecraft systems in orbit. Behnken and Hurley’s objective is to conduct research on Crew Dragon as well as to repair and improve parts of the ISS. The duration of their stay in orbit has not yet been decided; it may range from one month to several.

If everything goes according to plan, the first fully operational flight of a Crew Dragon capsule will be scheduled for later this year, carrying four astronauts, and Crew Dragon will be certified for operational, long-duration missions. This launch will also lay the foundation for proceeding with NASA’s Artemis Initiative, a government-funded program to land astronauts again on the moon by 2024 (we haven’t been there since 1972).

The U.S.’s successful launch may serve as a source of inspiration for other space-related opportunities to come. For one, it’s a wakeup call to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. The successful launch means that the U.S.’s dependence on Russia to transport its astronauts to and from the ISS will be alleviated; this is better for the U.S., since each seat on the Soyuz spacecraft is a steep $80 million. However, Roscosmos would lose about $200 million as a result, which cuts deeply into Roscomos’s annual budget of $2 billion. This loss of a revenue stream, coupled with the corruption in Russia’s Vostochny space center in late 2019, where its workers were sentenced for fraud, has damaged Russia’s prestige in space exploration. But the launch could be the incentive Roscosmos needs to pick itself up.

The U.S.’s launch also provides incentives for other companies to join in on the space scene. By next year, Boeing could be poised to send astronauts to space as well. Other companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are developing spacecraft that could provide tourist rides.

This series of changes could change the way we think of spaceflight. There’s the possibility of opening spaceflight to private citizens with the wealth and time to travel to space, bringing in profits and revenue. But increased private space flights could have dire effects on the environment. Scientists worry about an increased carbon footprint from rocket emissions, as soot in the stratosphere cannot be washed away by precipitation. Environmental law professional Jon Krois argues that current space and environmental laws do not respond sufficiently to the implications of increased, non-research space flights.

Demo-2 is a testament to the achievements of the human enterprise and what’s to come in space exploration. It’s certainly promising that NASA will be able to launch more missions in the future for research and exploration purposes. The launch raises both positive and concerning implications, all of which are crucial to monitor. But perhaps it’s not a stretch to say that we are entering a new and hopeful era of spaceflight—supported with the same excitement we displayed when we first entered space.