As the world watched with bated breaths on live telecast, SpaceX Crew Dragon 2 spacecraft was launched successfully on 31 May, 12.52 AM IST. Being the first private vehicle to carry a human crew to the International Space Station (ISS), will it mark the beginning of a new era in space flights? Can it alter the course of space travel by putting private players in the driver’s seat?
Crux of the Matter
About the Launch
Former military pilots and current NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are traveling to the ISS in Dragon 2, the successor to the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft. The reusable spacecraft was launched atop a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket, powered by Merlin engines burning liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellants. It was equipped with an integrated launch escapesystem capable of accelerating the vehicle away from the rocket at 11.8 metre per second square for any emergency.
After takeoff, the spacecraft reached Earth’s orbit in 12 minutes, wherein the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule separated. The rocket returned to Earth and landed on the drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’. The capsule remained in orbit for 19 hours before using its autonomous system to dock with the ISS. The astronauts will stay on the ISS for one to four months, then head back to Earth in the same capsule.
Behind The Scenes Founded in 2002, SpaceX flew the cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft for the first time in 2010. Since then it has flown more than a dozen cargo missions to the ISS for NASA. In March 2019 it performed an unmannedtestflight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, a major test for the company.
However, in April2019 that spacecraft exploded in a routine test after a valve issue and recently their StarshipSN4Prototype blew up into flames in a static fire test. Despite the setbacks, getting back on track to launch Dragon 2 is commendable on the part of both the space visionary Elon Muskand his dedicated team.
Win-Win When the Dragon 2 flies, SpaceX will become the first private company ever to fly humans to orbit. SpaceX has already started signing agreements to offer berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips as early as next year. The mission’s success is a necessary stepping stone for Musk’s ultimate goal of launching humans on space flights to transport them to Mars by 2024, after sending an unmanned cargo rocket to check the feasibility further by 2022.
As for NASA, it has given a fitting head start to it’s planned crewed mission to the moon in 2024. It is also speculated to mark the end of American reliance on Russia’s Soyuz program, with NASA sending astronauts into space for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011 due to the dearth of resources and funding back then.
Next Step: Privatizing Space Globally Or Unilaterally?
Similar to when the first commercial airline flights began, I think the world will be changed forever.
Mike Massimino, Former NASA astronaut
Not everyone seems happy with the launch as there have been reports of Russianofficials criticizing the White House for its attempt to unilaterally privatize space to exploit the earth’s resources and instead demanded international cooperation in space. As Musk’s SpaceX will become NASA’s first Commercial Crew Program partner, the launch would represent a major milestone for the commercial spaceflight industry, in what has traditionally been a field solely dominated by government space agencies like India’s ISRO, Canada’s CSA, Europe’s ESA, Russia’s Roscosmos and China’s CNSA, and US’s NASA.
Private players like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Boeing can then confidently venture into doing viable collaborations with the government. Boeing is expected to launch its Starlinerspacecraft with humans for the first time in spring 2021.
Back at home, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman recently announced that the Private sector will be a co-traveller in India’s Space journey with ISRO, as a part of Policy reforms to fast-track investment effort towards Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India). Currently, the Department of Space has special research labs called ‘Space Cells’ but its scope is limited to ISRO’s needs. Now in order to encourage private sector participation, the government needs to incentivise them by providing risk coverage and legal support.
Elon Musk has had his sights on colonizing Mars for nearly two decades. Musk has said that reading sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” saga helped inspire him to found SpaceX because it opened his eyes to the idea of prolonging human civilization by “building spaceships to extend the human species’s reach” to planets other than Earth.
In February 2018 Elon Musk successfully launched a Cherry Red Tesla Roadster electric car into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket launched by SpaceX. Starman (a mannequin) is in the driver’s seat of the Roadster and is currently driving into space. On August 17th, 2019 it completed its first orbit around the sun.
Elon Musk co-founded a school for his five sons in 2014, called Ad Astra. The school had as many as 8 students and was based in a conference room at SpaceX. As of 2018, Ad Astra had over 40 students, the majority of whom were children of SpaceX staff. Ad Astra is a popular Latin phrase meaning “through hardships to the stars”.