On Saturday the 30th of May, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launched at 3.22p.m. EDT from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral. The mission took US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS).
This mission, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, marks the return of human spaceflight capabilities to the US with the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American spacecraft since July 2011. This is the first time NASA has used a private firm for a US crew launch.
“What we’re doing is unlike anything we’ve done before,” stated NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are not purchasing, owning and operating the hardware, we’re turning to commercial industry… We’re really revolutionizing how we do spaceflight.”
The success of the launch also marks SpaceX’s first mission with passengers in the company’s 18-year history. “This is the culmination of a dream,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told “CBS This Morning” hours ahead of the scheduled launch. “This is a dream come true. In fact, it feels surreal. If you’d asked me when starting SpaceX if this would happen, I’d be like, 1% chance, 0.1% chance”.
This program and NASA’s collaboration with SpaceX is set to change the way NASA approaches space travel completely, shifting control from the U.S. government to private space companies. The aim is to free the agency to focus on more complicated missions, such as sending humans to the moon and Mars.
“The reason you have NASA is to push the envelope, do things at the frontier,” says astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “Low-Earth orbit and the space station are no longer the frontier. So, you just hire a trucking company.”
According to an analysis by the Planetary Society, using a private space company for this launch was a financially good deal for the agency. NASA’s portion of the Crew Dragon mission came to around $1.7 billion over the nine year development, far cheaper than any other crewed spacecraft project in their history.
The aim of the commercial crew program is more modest than other NASA missions: to provide regular ‘ferry’ services to the ISS. This makes it more affordable and thus ends the US agency’s reliance on Russia.
Russia has had the monopoly on spaceflight for years and has been able to charge increasing amounts per round-trip ticket for NASA astronauts. The cost has risen from about $21 million in 2008 (pre shuttle retirement) to over $90 million per seat for a planned flight in October.
Having a spacecraft and launch system in the US would give NASA better access to the space station. While the Russian spacecraft, Soyuz, can carry only three people at a time, the Crew Dragon can seat seven.
Once NASA can send more astronauts to the ISS at a low cost, they will be able to use the microgravity environment to conduct more experiments – in pharmaceuticals, materials science, astronomy, medicine and more.
The spacecraft has a capsule design, making it similar to the Apollo command modules that carried the astronauts to the Moon. Before re-entry, the capsule is attached to a section called the trunk which has solar panels, heat-removal radiators and fins to provide stability during emergency aborts.
SpaceX engineer John Federspiel, explains: “When we wanted to take Dragon and make it human-rated, I think we took a different approach to spaceship design than has previously been done, because we wanted this to feel like a 21st Century spaceship. He stated “Probably one of the biggest features of Dragon are the touchscreens on the inside. We designed them not just to be very functional, but with a user experience in mind.”
Three large displays allow Hurley and Behnken to monitor systems and control the spacecraft, a steep progression from the analogue buttons, dials, and control stick that featured in the cockpit of the shuttle which flew from 1981 to 2011.
One of SpaceX’s upcoming plans is to send Tom Cruise to the ISS in a year or two to shoot a film. Bridenstine embraces the idea, he wants NASA to be just one of many customers in this new and more accessible space-travelling era.
Written by Kate Summerson and edited by Tara Gamble.