It’s alarming to remember that no astronauts have been launched to orbit from the United States since 2011, when the ambitious but ultimately disappointing Space Shuttle fleet was retired. Sure, plenty of American astronauts have gone to space in that time, working on and maintaining the International Space Station, but to get there they’ve been hitching rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuzes are legendary and quite reliable craft, but there’s been some recent issues, and, really, America needs an independent way to get to orbit. Before the month ends, that looks like it will happen.
America will be returning to orbit via a commercial, not NASA, vehicle for the first time ever. That vehicle is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a development of the Dragon cargo vehicle that has been carrying supplies to the ISS since 2012.
The Crew Dragon will also be the first all-new spacecraft design to carry people into orbit in almost four decades. It’s a big deal.
The Crew Dragon is a capsule design, but unlike other crewed capsule designs that have come before it, it’s designed to be re-usable. Yes, I know the Gemini-B back in 1966 was the first re-used capsule, but it didn’t carry anyone on its second trip, so I’m not counting that, if that’s okay by you.
NASA and SpaceX produced an animation to give some highlights of the mission, and it’s full of interesting visuals:
Yes, they snuck a Tesla Model X in there at the beginning, because of course they did.
The capsule design is quite sleek and modern; the engines are cleverly integrated into the sides, allowing a service module “trunk” at the rear, and since, unlike Apollo, the engines are integrated into the crew module itself, they do double-duty as launch escape rockets as well as in-orbit maneuvering and orbital translation engines.
The hinged “cap” over the docking port is interesting, as that’s the sort of thing you’d really only see on a re-usable design; an expendable capsule would just jettison a fairing.
NASA has also released some diagrams of the flight plan; in another first, this will be the first crewed capsule where the launch vehicle returns via a controlled landing. Shuttle solid rocket boosters (SRBs) were recovered from the sea, but they just parachuted into the water. The SpaceX Falcon 9 lands on a barge:
Crew Dragon is expected to take about two days to reach the ISS, providing plenty of time to test the spacecraft’s independent operation.
Once at the station, the crew, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, will dock and enter, with the amount of time they’ll stay at the station still undecided. According to Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program and who spoke with Spaceflight Now,
“The minimum mission duration is really about a month, and the maximum is 119 days.”
The Dragon’s solar arrays, which form the outer skin of its trunk module, seem to be the limiting factor to watch.
I’d really have loved to watch the launch, set for early next week, but, um, NASA didn’t want me there:
Dammit. Maybe they saw the thing where I shit in a bag, like an astronaut.