Elon Musk founded SpaceX (officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) just over 18 years ago. Ultimately, his vision is for the company to reduce the cost of travelling to Mars, thus allowing people to start colonising the Red Planet. At present, space travel is reserved for the professionals or the elite who have oodles of money at their disposal, just like those who win big playing online pokies. Now, with the successful launch of the Crew Dragon and its human cargo into space on Saturday 30th May, he is perhaps a little closer to realising this dream.
The Historic Launch
The Commercial Crew Demo-2 launch lifted off at 3:22 pm EDT from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Originally planned for Wednesday, 27 May, it was scrubbed because of unfavourable weather conditions. But with such a massive project, backup dates for 30th and 31st May were also scheduled. In the end, the second attempt went off without a hitch and millions of people watched it all happen via livestream. The next day, following thorough testing while in orbit, it docked at the International Space Station (ISS).
This is the first time human passengers have been launched into space from the United States of America (USA) since NASA (National Aeronautics Space Administration) retired its Space Shuttle back in 2011. Plans for a programme that would succeed the Space Shuttle were made, but financial and bureaucratic issues caused serious delays. Since 2011, then, the USA has been making trips to the ISS by sending astronauts up on Russia’s Soyuz rockets – at up to $86 million a seat.
With NASA beset by various challenges, a decision to prioritise the commercial space flight industry was taken. The result was the Commercial Crew Programme, which was also created in 2011. In 2014, after a series of open competitions by various companies, Boeing and SpaceX won the opportunity to fly astronauts from US soil. A race to make the first flight followed, and the SpaceX Crew Dragon craft was ready before Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner Capsule.
Space Shuttle Veterans
The two astronauts who went up in the Crew Dragon are both seasoned Space Shuttle veterans. Doug Hurley actually piloted the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, aboard the Atlantis, while Robert Behnken is a former Chief of the Astronaut Office. They, and all individuals who had close contact with them, were tested twice for COVID-19 before the launch. They also spent the standard fortnight in quarantine, to make certain that they didn’t carry any illnesses onto the ISS.
The Magnificent Dragon II
The Crew Dragon is the human-rated capsule of the SpaceX Dragon II, and is the counterpart of the Cargo Dragon capsule. Capable of carrying up to seven passengers, it is launched from a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket. During the May 30th launch, the Falcon 9 fired for two minutes, then dropped off and touched down on a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean. At that point, a second rocket stage launched Hurley and Behnken into orbit.
The Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon are both reusable, which cuts their costs considerably, and SpaceX is believed to be charging NASA $55 million per seat. Boeing is expected to charge $90 million for a trip on their Starliner, which will also be able to carry seven people. SpaceX also plans to offer commercial scientists and private passengers tickets aboard the Crew Dragon. This will make it more financially beneficial and will ultimately help to keep NASA’s expenses down.
In a year that has brought incredible challenges to Planet Earth, a lot of people watched the latest space launch and welcomed the success as some long-overdue good news. Popular singer Kelly Clarkson performed The Star-Spangled Banner” in a prelaunch broadcast, which arguably drummed up as much US national pride as when the song is sung at the Super Bowl Final. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s Administrator, said the flight would unite not only Republicans and Democrats, but people all across the world.
For Musk, the carrying of human passengers into space aboard the Dragon Crew is a personal triumph and the culmination of years of hard work. He has already rearticulated his belief in the need for a moon base as well as a settlement on Mars. This is only the beginning, Musk said, and he clearly has great plans for a future that he described as “super-exciting”.