Crew Dragon is the first "commercial" private capsule to bring people into orbit.
If the weather in Florida is not a joke tomorrow, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley plan to get on a SpaceX capsule and go to space. Mission controllers are carefully watching the weather to see if the weather conditions are suitable: if not, the next two launch opportunities available are May 30th and 31st.
Launch SpaceX, the launch of firsts
If the launch of SpaceX is successful (fingers crossed) it will mark a series of firsts in human space flight. First of all, it will be the first time that a private company has sent humans into orbit. It is the first time of an astronaut launch from American soil since NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011. And flights on the space flight simulator don't count.
The most significant thing is perhaps this. It is the first time in 17 years that someone has launched a new type of spaceship to bring humans into Earth orbit.
Bob Behnken and Dough Hurley will bring the Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS). About 19 hours after launch, they will dock at the ISS to join three astronauts who have lived and worked there since April.
The flight is the culmination of NASA's long effort to transition from using its own vehicles to that of private companies. Since 2011, NASA (like all other space agencies) has been relying on it on Soyuz, originally designed in the 60s, to bring people into orbit. But if SpaceX's flight proceeds as planned, the agency will begin using Crew Dragon to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.
Another asset of Elon Musk
California-based SpaceX is ahead in private space flight. It is the first of two companies chosen by NASA to conduct a manned test flight, and had the intuition to exploit the same basic design of a spacecraft designed to carry cargo. Its competitor, a giant like Boeing, is further behind. The Starliner, the name of the Boeing capsule, spent two days in Earth orbit unmanned in December not without several problems, including a crucial error in its software. Starliner will carry out another unmanned test flight in the coming months and probably won't fly the astronauts until next year.
Crew Dragon, space bullet
Crew Dragon is a capsule shaped like a bullet 8 meters long and 4 wide, somewhat resembling the Apollo capsules that ended up on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. Crew Dragon can carry up to four people: it will be launched on one of the Falcon 9 rockets by SpaceX, which has reduced the cost of transporting satellites into space by reusing expensive components such as rockets. NASA is thought to be paying about $ 60 million for each seat on the Crew Dragon, compared to the $ 90 million it paid the Russian space agency for seats aboard the Soyuz.
The first manned flight of any new spacecraft always generates some apprehension, as astronauts have died on missions. Behnken and Hurley are former military test pilots and veteran astronauts. They both have two flights on the Space Shuttle behind them. In a May 1 briefing with reporters, the two said they believe flying aboard Crew Dragon is less risky than flying the shuttle. "The capsule design is generally safer," said Hurley.
If something goes wrong aboard Crew Dragon, astronauts have a better chance of disrupting the mission than they would on the Shuttle. If something goes wrong immediately after SpaceX launches, they can activate eight special motors to move the capsule away from the Falcon 9 rocket, open the parachute and dive into the ocean.
Behnken and Hurley will live and work on the ISS for a period of one or four months. Among other activities, the various research projects conducted on the station will help, projects that can make a critical contribution to science in orbit.
Given the Covid-19 pandemic, tomorrow's historic launch of SpaceX will be unlike any other. NASA is warning members of the public to stay away and watch the launch online only, without crowding on nearby beaches as they historically did. The astronauts are in an extended quarantine before launch, so as not to transport pathogens to the space station.
After this launch, NASA's attention will return to its objectives, including that of bringing astronauts back to the moon by the end of 2024.
A goal less and less feasible over time. NASA has begun to purchase some of the necessary services; for example, it tasked companies with developing landers that would transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface. But the head of the landing strategy resigned last week. Doug loverro, head of NASA's human space flight program for just seven months, dropped out of unspecified management errors.