Behnken and Hurley are already celebrated as two heroes. They arrived at Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A after greeting their wives and children, a symbolic hug beyond the security cordon. Then, with a white Tesla model X, they darted to the foot of the turret overlooking the Atlantic. With the lift they traveled 70 meters in height and took place in two of the four seats in the capsule at the head of the rocket which will shoot them much higher. They will be the first since 2011 to arrive in orbit from American soil. The first on a private capsule. The same records that can boast, if everything goes smoothly, even SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk. With the merit of having given America a new independence from Russia for access to the space of its astronauts.
The President of the United States, Donald Trump, and his deputy, Mike Pence, also came to attend the lift off. Air Force One with the President on board had flown over Cape Canaveral in favor of the camera before landing. No public to avoid gatherings in time of coronavirus, but not only the Americans were watching the live broadcast of NASA and SpaceX. The whole world was connected for the epochal event.
The journey to the Iss
During the journey to the ISS, when possible, Behnken and Hurley will test the Dragon systems, to verify that everything works “nominally”. The operations are in the hands of a computer that manages the transfer phase and also the docking.
The docking and the Demo-2 mission
The Dragon is propelled by a Falcon 9 rocket, the carrier that made the fortune of the aerospace company of Musk thanks to the reusable first stage. The first stage will burn for about two and a half minutes before separating and leaving the task to the second stage to accompany the capsule to orbit. After 12 minutes, the latter’s task will also be completed and will come off. At that point the Dragon and the astronauts will be in orbit heading towards the ISS. In the event that something goes wrong immediately after launch, the shuttle will activate the escape system from the carrier, thanks to rockets that will ‘shoot’ it away and a parachute will ensure its safe landing in the Atlantic. Everything should happen without human intervention. The automatic docking at the Space Station had been tested during the Demo-1 mission, when the Crew Dragon flew the first time, without astronauts. In the event of problems or malfunctions, everything will be hand-controlled and it will be up to the astronauts to adjust the maneuver and “aim” to fasten the hatches, assisted by colleagues on board the Station. The controls are located on the large touch screens that have in front of the face, so different from the buttons of the older Soyuz that are crushed with the help of a small rod.
Demo-2 is a first time, but it’s still a test mission. The Crew-1 will take off in the coming months with a Dragon. In the meantime, Bob Behnken and Dug Hurley will spend some time on Iss. More than planned. Initially, a couple of weeks were expected to remain in orbit in 2019. With the postponement of the launch, things have changed. There are only three astronauts on board the ISS, the Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and the American Christopher Cassidy. Behnken and Hurley could remain in orbit with them for an unspecified time, from one to four months.
Doug and Bob, the veterans
They are two military pilots, both of whom have been in space more than once.
Colonel Robert L. Behnken, 50 years old in July, graduate, master and Phd in mechanical engineering. Selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2000, he flew twice with the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2008 and 2010 for a total of 29 days and 12 hours in space.
Douglas G. Hurley, 54 in October, is a Marine Corps pilot. Degree in civil engineering, he also flew twice in space. The first, in 2009, with Endeavor. The second in 2011, with Atlantis, which was also the last mission of a Space Shuttle, which transported the Italian “Raffaello” module, built by Thales Alenia Space for the Italian Space Agency.
The Commercial crew program
Crew Dragon is one of two new “taxis” (the other being the Starliner built by Boeing, which failed to arrive at ISS in the first flight test in December) that NASA will rent to transport astronauts to orbit. Finally independent from the Russian Soyuz to access the space with its own crew. They are the main part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, launched under the Obama administration and which now takes flight. The total cost for the contracts entered into with the two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, amounts to over seven and a half billion dollars.
“With NASA we are giving a boost for the development of the private sector which still does not have the resources to market these services”. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said this during the press conference that preceded the launch. Boosting commercial businesses with American taxpayers’ money means giving life to a sector that will be increasingly strategic, but in the near future it will be the private prerogative of the American space agency which will be a buyer like the others (only much richer ).