Yesterday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a Crew Dragon capsule with four astronauts to the International Space Station, the second flight of a crewed Crew Dragon and the official first operational (as in, not a test) flight of the spacecraft. This is a very big deal, not just because this represents the first regular private, commercially developed regular-use orbital spacecraft, but because it frees NASA up to do what it was really born to do: explore.
The Crew Dragon is, really, a space taxi. I don’t say that to minimize it — you stick “space” in front of anything and it gets a million times more complex.
The Dragon capsule, named Resilience, ferried Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and a Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi to orbit. It’s doing a job that up until very recently we had been paying Russian Soyuz capsules to carry out (at like $90 million a seat). Ir’s also a job that NASA had been doing with the large and complex Space Shuttles as well.
Getting people to and from orbit is still a difficult, excitingly non-trivial task, but it’s still just bopping back and forth between Earth and low-Earth orbit. When the Commercial Crew Program was started in 2010, the whole point of it was to free up NASA to do other things.
Now, finally, that’s all happening.
There is one odd twist to all of this, though. Thanks to the powerful media presence of Elon Musk and SpaceX, most of the general public seems to have the idea that SpaceX is everything that’s going on in American human space travel and exploration, and that’s very much not the truth.
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I’m not going to pretend I conducted exhaustive formal surveys, as cool as that would make me seem, but in informal talks with smart, generally well-informed people, I was surprised to discover that most non-painful geeks I spoke with were not aware that we are on the cusp of a whole new exciting era of space exploration.
None of the people I spoke with were aware of the big things about to happen, and so I’m writing this for those people. I suspect a lot of our regular audience is actually aware of this, so if that’s the case, pass this on to your friends who think the only person now looking to the stars is Elon, because again, that’s not the case.
Also, I feel like an article like this is necessary because a certain president of a certain set of States that appear to be both United and in America, very recently tweeted this:
Just to be very, very clear, NASA was very much not a “closed up disaster” when Trump came into office in 2017. The Commercial Crew Program that made yesterday’s launch possible started six years before he took office, and all of the other Big Things I’m about to tell you about were well underway by 2017.
Also, the whole point of this launch was that it was using spacecraft not developed by NASA, so saying any of that tweet makes no sense and — oh, fuck it. Let me just remind you what NASA is up to.
To keep things simple, I want to talk about just three very big projects NASA is working on now, projects that are all in the actual building hardware stage, and long past the “wouldn’t it be cool if” stages.
Here’s the three things:
1. A big-ass rocket, the most powerful NASA has ever built
B. An all-new crewed spacecraft, the first human-crewed spacecraft designed to go beyond the orbit of the moon
Γ. The first human-tended space station to be placed in lunar orbit; really, the first space station to be located anywhere other than low-earth orbit
Collectively, all of this stuff is known as the Artemis program.
NASA has made a nice little animated video that explains the goals of the Artemis program, which includes a return to the moon, this time done in a sustainable way that will permit permanent lunar bases, and then eventually on to Mars.
The first component, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, is important because it’s an absolute monster. It’s derived from Space Shuttle-era launch systems, which is why you may notice some basic similarities, including the use of side-mounted solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and that distinctive orange central tank.
This new rocket will be more powerful than a Saturn V, producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust compared with about 7.6 million for a Saturn V. That means you can throw an awful lot of stuff to the moon, or beyond.
Now, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of talk about how SpaceX’s upcoming Starship will make the SLS look like a dinosaur. But the SLS is a good bit further along in development: The hardware has already been built, and the first flight is scheduled for just about a year from now. And it is based on proven components and methods, while Starship’s much more ambitious design (reusability and in-orbit refueling, for example) are still untested and unproven.
Maybe down the road Starship will make SLS obsolete. Maybe it won’t. If it does happen, that will be exciting issue to deal with, but until then, may as well finish our nice big-ass rocket.
Then there’s Orion. You should be excited about Orion because it’s humanity’s first spacecraft designed to take humans into the solar system, beyond the moon, to Mars or even the asteroid belt.
Sure, it looks like a bizzaro version of the Apollo capsules of the 1960s, but that’s because we learned a lot from the Shuttle Program: making spaceplanes isn’t really the best way to get out of Earth orbit, and simpler capsule designs make more sense.
Orion will be at least partially re-usable, have much more interior volume than an Apollo, and, of course, have the benefit of a half-century of technical development.
The first Orion has been built, and is being prepped for the uncrewed Artemis I test mission that will take it around the moon:
Whatever quibbles internet experts may have with any number of elements of the design, the point is that NASA is once again building spacecraft to take humans where they’ve never gone before. That’s a big deal.
And finally, we have the Lunar Gateway:
An all-new space station would be enough of a big deal on its own, but a space station away from the Earth is even bigger.
The Lunar Gateway will be smaller than the current ISS, and used the established TinkerToy-like method of construction. Technically, it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary, but its location in lunar orbit changes everything.
Ideally, the Gateway will allow for long-term lunar missions, with the ability to refuel spacecraft, change orbits to allow for a variety of landing sites, resupply missions and more.
No one has ever operated a space station like this before. It could be the crucial piece needed for sustained off-planet living, or we could completely screw it up. I’m optimistic, but we won’t know until we try. And we’re gonna try.
This is all, of course, the barest overview of what’s going on. But I think at this point, it’s really, really important to take a moment and look past all the (deserved!) attention SpaceX and the Crew Dragon is getting and see why those commercial companies are doing it in the first place.
It’s not because NASA couldn’t do it. It’s because NASA has better shit to do.
NASA belongs to every American. It’s not a business; the goal isn’t about making money. The goals are scientific, to learn, to explore, to maybe even extend the habitat of humanity, because that’s just something that we as humans do.
And it’s something that makes me proud to be one of these soft, drippy, fuzzy humans, and I think these projects are things that everyone should be aware of, and, if you’re so inclined, to feel excited about.
Because they’re real, they’re happening, and I think we could all use some things to be excited about right now.