May 30, 2020 11:58 am
“NASA engineers were exasperated. “What the hell are we doing?”, They asked, “Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and SpaceX consultant, recalled in a recent interview. “It seemed like madness.” On more than one occasion, Musk’s radical and frenetic approach has entered a collision course with NASA’s methodical and thoughtful approach.
In the end the launch of the rocket ended without problems. If someone had told the engineers that NASA would agree to place two of its best pilots in a SpaceX capsule to send them to space ten years later, they probably wouldn’t have believed it. “At the time, mutual distrust was evident, and disrespect was also evident,” said Reisman, who was participating in the program at the time.
Success or catastrophe
That unpredictable moment arrived on May 27th. More or less. Two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, were ready to depart Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX capsule, but the flight was canceled a few minutes before takeoff due to a factor that neither NASA nor SpaceX can control : weather conditions. It was a frustrating ending to a busy day, although this type of inconvenience is quite common on space flights.
SpaceX will try again in the afternoon of May 30th.
Despite the postponement of take-off, and even without considering the pandemic looming in the background, the stakes in the operation are very high. Hurley and Behnken are two experienced astronauts who in the past have already flown four times aboard the shuttle (and among other things they are linked by a deep friendship), but the fact remains that SpaceX has never launched a vehicle with beings humans on board. NASA, for its part, has never entrusted such a large responsibility to a private individual. The last time an American astronaut flew a brand new spacecraft was in 1981.
A success of the operation would mark the advent of a new era for the United States space program. NASA has decided to outsource the most important task of the entire program: to transport human beings beyond the borders that separate us from the rest of the universe, and then bring them home. And it was not another country’s space program that picked up the baton but a private US company with just ten years’ experience of launches into orbit. Hurley and Behnken will be the first astronauts in history to travel on a private aircraft, designed entirely by engineers who work for Musk and not for the space agency. It’s a great experiment, but it’s also an anticipation of the likely future of space travel, in which commercial companies could transport people beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
If the mission ends smoothly, SpaceX could enter mass culture as NASA once did. If something goes wrong, the new era of space travel could end before it even begins.
In 2011 an American shuttle rose elegantly in the sky above the Florida coast. Spectators watched ecstatically from below as the spacecraft moved away into the sky, but in that case there was no one at the controls, and the shuttle was not directed into space.
In fact, that year, the shuttles were loaded onto a series of planes and transported in the old way to their new homes, in museums scattered throughout the country. After thirty years and 135 missions, the program had come to an end. American astronauts should have found another way to go into space.
In the past nine years, NASA astronauts have traveled together with Russian cosmonauts, squeezed into small capsules from the launch pad of Kazakhstan to reach the only human settlement far from Earth, the International Space Station. For when the old enemies of the Cold War now share the management of the ISS, the Americans have never liked the fact of having to ask the Russians for a ride. After all, the country that sent its astronauts to the moon should be able to send them to an orbiting station not far from Earth.
Get away from the Russians
In the meantime, SpaceX has arrived in Cape Canaveral, three years after the final departure of the shuttles, after signing a lease to use the country’s most popular launch pad.
In the same year, 2014, NASA awarded SpaceX a billion dollar contract to build a new system for the transportation of astronauts. The agency proposed the same deal to Boeing. At the time, there was no internal option, because the administration of George W. Bush (2000-2008) had put an end to the Space Shuttle program and Barack Obama (2008-2016) had canceled Bush’s plan to build a new fleet. of aircraft to transport astronauts to the ISS and beyond.
The new program, Commercial Crew, should help NASA to detach itself from the Russians and transport its astronauts aboard aircraft that can boast a “made in the USA” brand. The deal with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is not exactly cheap. Over the past decade, the price for a seat on a Soyuz has gone from fifty to ninety million dollars. The shuttle program has also been canceled due to the excessive costs, and NASA hopes that by entrusting the task to the private sector and commissioning more than one company, it will be possible to reduce the expenses for travel in orbit. In addition to the economic issue there is also that of patriotism: a country operating in space should be in a position to let its explorers leave.
NASA has always relied on contractors to build aircraft, from lunar landers to shuttles. This time, however, the space agency is no longer in control of operations as in the past. The construction of the entire system, from the individual bolts to the toilets mounted inside the capsules, was entrusted to the two private companies.
For NASA, the relationship with Boeing is rather familiar, given that the aviation industry has already collaborated often with the space agency and is used to respecting its rules. But an exuberant start-up like SpaceX has every intention of establishing its own rules.
Lori Garver, at the time deputy administrator of NASA, was present and wanted to intervene to help colleagues from SpaceX before it was too late. “You should talk to them!”, He remembers telling Bill Gerstenmaier, the director of the human exploration sector at the time. But Gerstenmaier hadn’t intervened, because he wanted SpaceX engineers to solve the problem and was convinced that they would succeed. In the end he was right. “At that moment I realized that NASA was beginning to accept the situation and that the collaboration would work,” Garver told me recently.
Tracking accidents recurred in the initial phase of the Commercial Crew program. SpaceX has proposed to entrust three NASA employees to oversee the development of a version of the Dragon capsule intended to transport astronauts. But NASA, Garver says, would have preferred to send three hundred employees. In the end they settled for thirty. “In its first decade of activity, NASA has achieved results that belong to the history of humanity,” underlines Garver referring to the lunar landings of the Apollo missions. “Since then it has always been difficult for them to accept that they have to justify themselves for anything.”
Reisman recalls the frustration of SpaceX employees and the resistance to NASA’s prudent approach. “There were people who said ‘Hey, I know very well that you do things in the style of NASA, but it’s important, you have to do it,” he said. Over the years, the government agency and the company have built up the mutual trust that is indispensable when people’s lives are at stake. In the memories of Garvar and Reisman, SpaceX and NASA were the protagonists of a comedy in which the happy ending depends on the ability of the main characters to get to know each other better and to compromise.
Yet the friction never completely disappeared, and the occasional clashes continued until last year. When Elon Musk smoked weed while recording a podcast, NASA ordered an investigation into SpaceX’s workplace. On another occasion, Musk made fun of NASA’s program during a public confrontation with Jim Bridenstine, the head of the agency, and then invited him to SpaceX headquarters to demonstrate that the two had reconciled.
On May 27, Hurley and Behnken wore overalls in the same room where they had prepared for their travels on the shuttle. But this time they were surrounded by SpaceX technicians, who scrambled around them wearing protective gear and checking for leaks and helmets to ensure flawless communication.
Astronauts spent countless hours in simulators and training facilities, getting used to new vehicles completely different from those they have flown on in the past. While the shuttle’s interiors were functional and full of control panels with switches very close together – “if you operate the wrong switch your day can turn into a nightmare,” Hurley told me – the Crew Dragon is minimalist, with a triptych of screens touch. However, the astronauts asked to place Velcro panels on the walls in order to be able to rest the instruments and avoid them floating in the cabin. “In this Bob and I are a little old-fashioned,” Hurley justified.
When SpaceX designed this luxurious environment, he wasn’t just thinking about a test flight with a couple of astronauts. Even if NASA helped finance the project, in fact, he will not be the only customer of the Dragon capsule. In the next trips SpaceX could transport not only astronauts but also rich enough citizens to be able to afford the ticket. The company has already promised to take Tom Cruise to ISS to make a film. Unlike shuttles, the Dragon capsule doesn’t need a pilot to dock in the space station. It can fly automatically, from take-off to ditching.
Behind this futuristic aesthetic, however, the fact remains that space travel still carries enormous risks regardless of the destination, the Moon or just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. “I am absolutely convinced that SpaceX and NASA have done an excellent job of minimizing risks and increasing safety for the crew,” said Wayne Hale, former flight director and administrator of the Space Shuttle program. “But that doesn’t mean space travel]be sure. ”
On May 27, as the countdown neared zero, it was up to a SpaceX executive to decide whether to go ahead or, as it happened in the end, postpone the launch. “When you take off, the control room isn’t in Houston,” admits Reisman, “but in Hawthorne, California, at the SpaceX headquarters.”
Although SpaceX engineers are at the controls, NASA staff are following them closely, as they did throughout the program development. The space agency has set the rules to ensure the safety of astronauts, and the last word is up to the NASA administrator, not Musk. “If we see something that does not convince us, we have the right to intervene,” Bridenstine explained to me on May 27th. But such a situation would only occur in case of extreme necessity, and Bridenstine hopes that it will never go that far.
For the moment, the most significant snapshot is not that of the rocket in the launch position, or the overview of the control room with SpaceX engineers at the controls, although these scenes were actually surreal. The most striking image is that of the two astronauts on board a car, of course a Tesla Model X, along the short journey to the launch pad, with the unmistakable NASA logo printed on the counters.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)