Space Revolution: SpaceX’s first manned flight


On May 27, two astronauts will reach the ISS thanks to a private company: it is a new era of exploration

From Wednesday 27 May 2020 space exploration will never be the same again. When in Italy it will be 22:33, a Crew Dragon spacecraft, designed and built by SpaceX, will detach from ramp 39A of the Kennedy Space Center to bring the Americans Robert Behnken is Doug Hurley on the International Space Station. For the first time two astronauts will reach space thanks to a private company. If everything goes as planned (here you can follow the live broadcast), then anyone, agency or foreign company, could take advantage of the Cosmic taxi of Elon Musk’s company after paying for the transport.

The rocket Falcon 9, which will bring the Dragon into orbit, has already been on the Cape Canaveral ramp for a few days. There, from where the man left for the moon in July 1969, one will arrive around 19:30 on Wednesday Tesla Model X white, with Behnken and Hurley on board, ready to climb the launch tower, completely retrofitted, to settle inside the capsule and start the Demo 2 mission. It will be a test expedition and will be only the first of the six steps to the ISS for which NASA has already paid Musk a ticket from 2.7 billion dollars (also used for the construction of the shuttle).

The Crew Dragon can carry up to 7 astronauts, although the standard crew will be 4 (photo: SpaceX / Nasa)

Between futuristic touch screens and wearing space suits that seem to come out of Tron, Hurley and Behnken will become the first Americans since 2011 to detach from US soil to get out of the atmosphere. The first, since the closure of the Space Shuttle program, to do so sitting in a vehicle built in the United States by an American company.

That the Nasa take great care to emphasize the primacy and collaboration with SpaceX – the slogan “American astronauts […] on an American rocket from American soil“- confirms what is suggested by the details, starting from the well-publicized catwalk in Tesla – another Musk company – up to the innovation of vehicles, structures and equipment: in full harmony with what the American space agency wanted, the way to explore and above all, approaching space has evolved. Today the deal has become, strict sensu, private. It’s about a soft revolution, for now more of thought than of technology. But no less radical for this.

Robert Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley in the Crew Dragon simulator (photo: SpaceX / Nasa)

The launch …

Quarantined from 13 May, but with additional isolation measures due to the health emergency, Behnken (two Shuttle expeditions and six extravehicular assets) and Hurley (Navy test pilot who flew on the last Shuttle mission, the Sts -135) will wear spacesuits four hours earlier of departure. Once the astronauts are secured to the capsule, about an hour and 50 before lift-off, the refueling of Falcon 9 will begin 35 minutes after launch.

Its nine Merlin engines will start three seconds from zero and guarantee continuous thrust for the first ones 11 minute flight, then the Dragon will be placed in the pursuit orbit towards the ISS.

At that point, while SpaceX will once again test the Falcon’s first stage ability to return autonomously to the floating platform Of Course I Still Love You, 510 kilometers off Cape Canaveral, a journey to Behnken and Hurley will begin towards the orbiting station of 19 hours. There are 13 more than Soyuz uses to make the same route, but they will allow you to test the systems of the new vehicle. At 150 meters from the ISS, the astronauts they will switch to manual control, to feign a failure in the automatic driving of the Dragon and test its controls (of which SpaceX has even released a simulator). To dock, when it will be May 28 between 17 and 18 Italian, we will instead return to computerized control.

Only in the following weeks, Behnken and Hurley will know the duration of their stay in orbit (from 30 to 119 days), determined by some responses to flight tests and the progress of the next Dragon, which in the “Crew-1” mission will bring four people on the ISS (on a maximum capacity of seven).

The spacecraft will return to Earth landing, as it did for the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo capsules, but unlike the previous Cargo versions – on which all the tests were carried out off the coast of California – the Crew Dragon will dive in front of Florida.

The Crew Dragon will reach ISS 19 hours after launch (photo: SpaceX / Nasa)

… and after

Always there are no hitches (otherwise everything will be postponed until May 30th), the launch of the “Demo-2” will inaugurate an era in which not only geopolitical balances will be increasingly linked to space activities, but in which the economy of the Planet will depend on commercial strategies implemented beyond the atmosphere by public bodies together with private companies, even if not mainly medium-small ones (think also of the program Boost! launched last April by ESA to stimulate European competition).

The SpaceX test will shape the future starting from low orbit, where the transport service to the ISS will come into operation at the end of the year (NASA has already bought an extra pass on Soyuz, however, spending 90 million dollars). Then the marketing process of the space will extend to the Moon, as already demonstrated by the orders for the realization of the lander in the program Artemis, and therefore who knows. After all, Musk’s innovations are designed to reach Mars, not to be limited to a taxi service up to 400 kilometers from Earth. And it is precisely to build (and make cheaper) the future that NASA launched in 2010 on Commercial Crew Program, of which the mission “Demo-2” is only one of the first stages.

It is a global process, also stimulated by the emerging space powers that with China and India in the lead are transforming space into the last frontier of business. It is no coincidence that NASA has had since June last year open the ISS to private exploitation and that, from 2024, the station, symbol of international collaboration for 20 years, is expected to be extended with a commercial segment made by Axiom. Just as it is no coincidence that a few weeks ago Donald Trump – in perfect consistency with the strategy inaugurated by the Obama administration – has issued a executive order to verify international support in the commercial exploitation of extra atmospheric resources and encourage private collaboration. On closer inspection, even that Jim Bridenstine, the number one of NASA, has confirmed the rumors of a film project that could even bring Tom Cruise to ISS as part of the new economic approach to space.

It is better to memorize the date and time: the future in which tourists will roam around the Earth, while cargo ships will go back and forth from the Moon, it could start on Wednesday, at 22:33.

The Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 at the Kennedy Space Center’s Horizontal Integration Facility (Hif) (photo: SpaceX)

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