I watched the SpaceX terminated launch last Wednesday 27th May, and then again the actual launch on Saturday 30th – immediately followed by watching Apollo 11, the documentary using newly unearthed film footage and audio recordings. Apollo 11 was the (then) pinnacle of US achievement, landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in July 1969. I was reminded that although things change, they also stay the same. This time it’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the hot seats. The preparation, the suiting-up, the journey to the rocket and up into the Crew Dragon capsule. The countdown and then – finally – the launch itself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Though the number of accidents remains low (Challenger in 1986, Columbia in 2003) to the uninitiated observer every launch feels like there’s a 50/50 chance of something going wrong, after all, the astronauts are sitting in a tiny sealed compartment on top of a giant bomb – a Falcon 9 rocket fuelled with kerosene. This time the tension was ramped up because this was the first launch of a manned American-built rocket from American soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, and Crew Dragon launched from pad 39B at Canaveral – the same pad that Apollo 11 launched from.
The space shuttle always had scenarios where, if there was the right combination of failures, the crew was toast, but Crew Dragon has a fail-safe system designed to launch the capsule safely away if there’s a problem with the rocket on launch or ascent.
Though I’m impressed by the work on the International Space Station (as much for the cooperation between nations as the scientific achievements) like many others I’ve been frustrated by the world’s apparent lack of interest in establishing a moon base in the fifty years following the first landing. However, SpaceX now presents us with a commercial alternative to government funded space exploration. It’s in the name, SpaceX, commercially funded by Elon Musk. Crew Dragon didn’t just appear fully formed, of course. An earlier design, Dragon 1, launched 20 times to deliver cargo to the space station between May 2012 and March 2020. Mr. Musk revealed the seven-seat Crew Dragon concept in 2014. The astronauts are in a capsule attached to a trunk (jettisoned before re-entry) which has solar panels, heat removal radiators and fins to provide stability in case of an emergency abort. The capsule and trunk together stand at 8.1m tall and 4m in diameter, with the capsule itself being almost 5m tall. The Crew Dragon has 16 Draco thrusters for manoeuvring in orbit.
Goodbye joystick, welcome touchscreens. The astronauts have three large interactive screens, allowing them to monitor systems and control the craft. Astronaut Doug Hurley commented on the lack of physical feedback from the touchscreen – but that’s progress, I guess, and the touchscreen allows for manual control.
I watched the countdown and the launch, and then tuned in to the live channel again in Sunday for the docking with the International Space Station, a deliberately slow procedure that went without a hitch. All the photos in this blog post are from screen caps that I did during the launch and docking.
The big advantage of this commercial set up is that the spacecraft, or most of it, is designed to be reusable. The Falcon 9 rocket returns to earth after separating from Crew Dragon and lands on a drone ship – spot on from watching the recordings. A reusable craft could be the first step to humanity’s return to the moon and our first trip to Mars.
Unlike the space shuttle the Crew Dragon can’t land on a runway, so on re-entry the capsule hurtles through the atmosphere at up to 25 times the speed of sound, deploys parachutes, and splashes down 450km off the coast of Florida. Of course, as I write, that is yet to happen. Reentry is probably more dangerous than launch. Safe return Bob and Doug.