When a SpaceX crewed Dragon launches atop a Falcon 9 carrying the first astronauts launched from American soil by the United States, they will be making history, setting NASA on a trajectory for the Moon and beyond. For a long time, private companies being able to put humans into orbit has been a dream. Since 2001 A Space Odyssey, made before the Apollo program landed people on the Moon, sci fi envisioned it being possible to take a Pan Am flight on a Space Shuttle like vehicle up to a space station. One with airliner seating no less. Then to connect to a flight to the Moon.
Then for a long while private space flight was the crazy dream of eccentric aeronautical engineers like Burt Rutan, who designed Spaceship 1 and put the first humans into space, Winning the Ansari Xprize, but not into orbit. Then Elon Musk SpaceX took that crazy dream to the next level by using established technologies in new ways.Watch of NASA's first mission in 11 years here.
Down To Earth Progress.
We are not anywhere near the capabilities shown in that fictional vision of the future. In fact, we haven’t been back to the Moon since Apollo 17 crewed by Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans (who piloted the command module). We will be launching in a capsule instead of a big winged colossus like the Space Shuttle. Which we thought was more advanced but really should be thought of as an experiment which succeeded in most ways but failed in crucial areas safety.
- In one hundred and thirty-five launches two mission ended with a complete loss of the crew due to design flaws and compromises.
- The Space Shuttle Challenger blew up after launch due to a design flaw in the o-rings that sealed segments of solid rocket boosters.
- The Shuttle Columbia was lost during reentry due to being hit by insulating foam from the external fuel tank.
- In each case there is evidence the crew were alive for a time after the fatal damage was done, and the dangerous state was clear to them. (Challenger LA Times, Columbia ABC news)
- Capsules like Soyuz, Apollo, Vostok, Mercury, etc have over a similar enough time frame proven to be safer though they have also had fatal incidents but more launches.
- The Shuttle was meant to be reusable and easy to turn around. While it was reusable it was expensive to make ready for the next flight.
- The shuttle was crucial to building the international space station and was in many respects a mini-space station that we could put into orbit and retrieve, and could use to land very delicate experiments from space.
That last point is why NASA is also contracting for a new space plane type vehicle By 2021 we Sierra Nevada corporation is slated to launch its unmanned Dream Chaser reusable space plane. It is designed to launch on top of, instead of next to, an active rocket. This will allow it to have many of the advantages of a capsule but be able to land like a plane. It will be used to return cargo from the ISS which cannot stand the relatively high G forces of a capsule landing. There is a plan for a future crewed version of it as well.
We learned what does and does not work from the Space Shuttle and from Soyuz. Crewed Dragon is a combination of those lessons to create a craft with the human carrying capacity of the Space Shuttle, which working with space-labs placed in orbit with other rockets will give us greater capabilities at less risk to human life and limb than ever before.
That is not to say that this launch is without risk. Space travel is and will be inherently risky for the foreseeable future.
In addition to the return of American astronauts flying American space craft to space NASA has the ambitious Artemis program meant to return humans to the moon by 2024. Although I would not be surprised if it takes until 2025 or 2026 given how unforeseen events always impact any planned time table.
This is a flight enabled by Elon Musk crazy, supervillain like dream, crewed by two of the most experienced astronauts NASA has. If all goes well, and we should all pray it does, be a new beginning for American space flight.
For those of you who have never seen 2001:A Space Odyssey and might not get the reference.
Yeah, we seriously thought thats what flying would be like in 2001. Needless to say it wasn't.
They did get the idea of a video phone call right though. That was barely possible in 2001 and is now common.