This is the moment that we’ve all been waiting for. SpaceX’s Demo-2 is just about to launch. We're on the verge of a truly historic event in human spaceflight. For the very first time SpaceX, a privately owned company, will ferry two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. And they won’t be aboard your average capsule. The Crew Dragon is a state of the art, completely autonomous vehicle that will launch on one of the reusable Falcon 9 rockets. But before we hand over all the reigns, this mission is the final demonstration flight for SpaceX.
Its purpose will be to test all the aspects of their crew transportation system, including their launch pad, launch vehicle, and spacecraft. The success of all these components could make or break if this new era of human spaceflight can be brought back to the United States.
Launching humans into space is an inspiring, yet daunting task. It takes years of planning, labor, brave participants, and let’s not forget, enormous rockets. But for decades, this unique endeavor has stayed within the confines of government bodies. The last time we launched anyone from the U.S. was when the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011. And bringing launches back stirs a sense of pride for the country, and for Robert Behnken, one of the astronauts that will be onboard for Demo-2.
I think we have a different perspective of the importance of coming to Florida launching again on an American rocket from the coast. And generations of people who maybe didn't get a chance to see a space shuttle launch, getting the chance again, to see human spaceflight, in our own backyard, if you will, is pretty exciting to be a part of.
And this will only be the fifth time in U.S. history that NASA astronauts were put into a brand-new spacecraft. One that’s cost-effective, reusable, and, in our humble 21st-century opinion, looks pretty cool and nothing like NASA has had before.
On the exterior, Crew Dragon is broken down into two segments: the capsule, which is designed to carry critical pressurized cargo and people, and the trunk, which is an unpressurized service module. Outside the capsule, you’ll find the draco thrusters that help propel the vehicle and around the trunk, you can find the solar arrays that power the spacecraft.
Now stepping inside Crew Dragon, you definitely start to get Space Odyssey vibes. Contrary to the Soyuz capsule or the Space Shuttle which had buttons lining the walls, Crew Dragon is a minimalist design outfitted with seats for the passengers who face touchscreen displays. Plus, the craft has an Environmental Control and Life Support System that helps keep a stabilized pressure for humans and other life on board as well keeping temperatures between a cozy 18 and 27 degrees Celsius.
But the best feature of all? The Crew Dragon is completely autonomous; the vehicle basically parks itself on the ISS, and Demo-2 will be the first time the spacecraft will be able to do so with crew onboard.
Really, you know, the goal of all the things it's to try to, decrease the workload on the individuals and the SpaceX vehicle really does that from an astronaut perspective, we can focus on the real mission of astronauts with respect to space station is to perform the science and the research that folks want to do in low-Earth orbit, and an extensive training flow to really understand and operate a rocket in a spacecraft is a pretty big burden. And so, the automation that the SpaceX vehicle brings, really does offload and decrease the amount of training and kind of the burden if you will. And it's nice to really reduce that with the Dragon spacecraft.
Which is a huge compliment. Behnken and his flight companion, Doug Hurley, are both seasoned astronauts having flown with the Space Shuttle program before. And they’ve met with the SpaceX teams extensively to have their input into the design and reliability of Crew Dragon.
So, what’s it going to look like on launch day? The mission timeline will go like this. Behnken and Hurley will undergo quarantine until launch which is currently scheduled for May 27th, 2020, pending weather and other conditions. At countdown’s mark, the pair will be launched into the atmosphere for a few minutes at an acceleration of about 28,163 km. At that point, the Falcon 9 booster will detach and attempt to land on one of the company’s off-coast drone ships. Once in orbit, the crew will unbuckle, conduct a first series of testing onboard, rest, and wait less than 24 hours until they reach the ISS.
Once arrived, the crew will test out the new touchscreen controls for manual docking, just in case in the future, the automation goes out. If that’s clear, the system will return to autonomous control and dock Behnken and Hurley safely.
They will remain in space for about 110 days or more in order for the Crew Dragon to go through more remote testing from the ground as well as monitor the degradation of the solar arrays on the craft.
For return, the Crew Dragon will break from orbit, again autonomously, and strip away the trunk since it won’t need it. It will re-enter the atmosphere and minutes later the Mrk3 parachutes will deploy and land Crew Dragon into the Atlantic to be recovered from the ground team. This is by far the riskiest and most important mission that SpaceX has ever conducted. But its success means the teams have paved the way for a new age of spaceflight that will continue to push the boundaries of human exploration. Which is why NASA opened its doors to commercial programs in the first place, to get innovative designs to not only take us to the I.S.S. but to the moon, Mars, and beyond.
SpaceX is just one launch away from making our curiosities a reality.
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