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”.
NASA has announced that it is planning to send two astronauts to International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft around mid-to-late May this year. This will be the first mission since 2011 in which American astronauts are being sent aboard the nation’s own spacecrafts from American soil.
Crux of the Matter
About the Mission SpaceX will become NASA’s first Commercial Crew Program (CCP) partners. Its Demonstration Mission-2 (Demo-2 or DM-2) of Crew Dragon spacecraft will send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) for probably 1.5 to 3 months.
The aim behind the extension could be that the US Space Agency does not want to keep one of its astronaut aboard ISS alone for a long time as two of its members would be departing for Earth in late Spring. Behnken, a veteran spacewalker, can also help another NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy with Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA), as per NASA.
A Decade Long Wait NASA retired its 30-year old space shuttle fleet in 2011. As per NASA instructor Robert Frost, Space Shuttle program was costly to operate and people required to maintain and operate spaceflights remained limited as most of them devoted their work to build the ISS. Moreover, President George Bush, in 2004, had announced that the fleet would retire by 2010 and NASA will focus on completing ISS. Currently, NASA’s astronauts are sent aboard the Soyuz spacecraft of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos.
About Commercial Crew Program (CCP) CCP is a US program to send astronauts to ISS on private spacecrafts. It is administered by NASA. Boeing and SpaceX had received the contracts for the same. However, Boeing’s debut orbital flight test of Starliner spacecraft failed with as many as 61 areas of improvement. SpaceX with its Crew Dragon spacecraft will be the first private operator to launch astronauts into space.
Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) is a human spaceflight development program that is funded by the U.S. government and administered by NASA. CCDev will result in US and international astronauts flying to the International Space Station (ISS) on privately operated crew vehicles. Operational contracts to fly astronauts were awarded in September 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing. More Info
Extravehicular activity (EVA) is any activity done by an astronaut or cosmonaut outside a spacecraft beyond the Earth’s appreciable atmosphere. The term most commonly applies to a spacewalk made outside a craft orbiting Earth such as the International Space Station. On March 18, 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first human to perform a spacewalk, exiting the capsule during the Voskhod 2 mission for 12 minutes and 9 seconds. More Info
The International Space Station (ISS) is a space station (habitable artificial satellite) in low Earth orbit. The ISS programme is a joint project between five participating space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada). The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which crew members conduct experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and other fields. The station is suited for the testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for missions to the Moon and Mars. The ISS maintains an orbit with an average altitude of 400 kilometres (250 mi) by means of reboost manoeuvres using the engines of the Zvezda module or visiting spacecraft. It circles the Earth in roughly 92 minutes and completes 15.5 orbits per day. More Info
In an interview with Polish publication WP Magazyn, NASA’s Dr. Robert Zubrin admitted that the Elon Musk-led space company SpaceX will reach Mars before NASA. Musk is reportedly planning to launch his mission to establish an outpost on the red planet by 2023 and subsequently send humans in times ahead.
Crux of the Matter
NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover Scheme As per NASA’s official statement, the Mars 2020 rover is based on its predecessor ‘Curiosity‘ which was launched in 2011. The car-sized rover is about 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall while weighing 1,050 kgs. The mission is expected to last for about 687 Earth days, equivalent to one Mars year. The rover is expected to land on February 18, 2021, at Jezero Crater, Mars. The official launch window ranges from July 17 to August 5, 2020, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
SpaceX’s Mars Game Plan Elon Musk’s brainchild had stated its aspiration to send its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022. SpaceX’s first mission aircraft ‘Starship‘ is targetted at confirming resources, identifying hazards and placing initial power, mining & life support infrastructure. Its next mission will carry both cargo and crew and is scheduled for 2024. This second mission is aimed at building a propellant depot for future crew flights. Musk hopes to evolve this foundation of the first Mars Base into a self-sustaining civilization.
Clash of NASA-Musk In a short series of back and forth tweets, Musk had reportedly blamedNASA’sbureaucracy for not yet returning astronauts to the moon. He talked about the progress of mankind from the train to the rocket, expressing his disappointment at not being able to return to the moon after its first flight 50 years ago. This feud comes amidst the US Congress proposing a new space bill. This promises to make NASA push back its moon landing mission to 2028 instead of 2024, and shift back it’s focus to the Mars one.
Exploration of Mars – The planet Mars has been explored remotely by spacecraft. Probes sent from Earth, beginning in the late 20th century, have yielded a large increase in knowledge about the Martian system, focused primarily on understanding its geology and habitability potential. Engineering interplanetary journeys are complicated and the exploration of Mars has experienced a high failure rate, especially the early attempts. Roughly sixty percent of all spacecraft destined for Mars failed before completing their missions and some failed before their observations could begin.
Some missions have met with unexpected success, such as the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, which operated for years beyond their specification. On June 10, 2018, Opportunity rover fell silent, leaving Curiosity of the Mars Science Laboratory mission with six orbiters surveying the planet: Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Orbiter Mission, MAVEN, and the Trace Gas Orbiter, which have contributed massive amounts of information about Mars. More Info