May 30th, 2020 saw the successful launch of the NASA backed SpaceX Crew Dragon. It docked with the International Space Station (ISS) the following day, bringing astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS. The mission is named Demo-2.
But what is the SpaceX Crew Dragon, what is its mission, and what does the future hold?
A little background on the launch
The last crewed launch carried out by NASA using all NASA equipment was way back in July 2011. The years since has seen NASA approach private companies hitch a ride to the ISS, delivering crew, equipment, and supplies.
One of the main companies to answer NASA’s call has been SpaceX, the Elon Musk backed space company. Musk’s goal was to reach to the farthest corner of our Solar System, to land a crew on Mars. The company was launched in 2001.By 2008 the Falcon 1 became the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit. SpaceX even launched their sister company Teslas Roadster into space.
Why is the Demo-2 launch so important?
The United States hasn’t launched its own astronauts into space since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. Since then, NASA’s astronauts have had to travel to Russia and train on the country’s Soyuz spacecraft. Those seats have cost NASA as much as $86 million each.
For reasons better known to NASA, it chose not to create its own replacement for the Shuttle. Instead, it asked the private sector to develop a new spacecraft. Capable of safely ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
This was a very controversial decision. Considering that NASA, the most prestigious and advanced space agency on Earth had never before outsourced the development of a spacecraft capable of carrying a crew.
The new thinking was that commercial companies could drive down costs and spur innovation. NASA would have more time and resources to focus on exploring deeper into the solar system.
In 2014, NASA awarded two contracts: $4.2 billion for Boeing to build its Starliner vehicle, and $2.6 billion to SpaceX. The latter planned to create a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft. The same that was already flying cargo to and from the International Space Station. NASA had already put money toward SpaceX’s development of the Dragon spacecraft used for transporting cargo.
The space agency has said Boeing received more money because it was designing the Starliner from scratch. Boeing recently suffered a significant setback when a Starliner capsule malfunctioned during a key uncrewed test flight. The successful launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon is a major win for NASA. It has been pushing for more commercial partnerships.
Many US companies, manufacturers have been involved in the manufacture of the 1000s of parts.
Not to mention, NASA won’t have to ask Russia for rides anymore.
What is the SpaceX Crew Dragon?
In May 2014, Elon Musk unveiled the seven-seat Crew Dragon concept during an event at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, in his typical style, as if it was the announcement of the latest Tesla automobile.
Like its predecessor, Dragon 1, the crewed version is a capsule design, making it similar to the Apollo command modules that carried astronauts to the Moon, rather than the winged space shuttle concept, which was conceived to carry both a crew and a large payload.
This gumdrop-shaped capsule is equipped with seven seats and in great 21st-century style, it has touchscreen controls. After all, this is the millennial generation.
The Crew Dragon capsule is fully autonomous, so the astronauts will mostly need to just monitor the systems and keep in touch with mission control unless something goes awry.
From launch up until shortly before re-entry, the capsule is attached to a section called the trunk which has solar panels, heat-removal radiators, and fins to provide stability during emergency aborts. Together, the capsule and trunk stand around 8.1m (26.7ft) tall, with a diameter of 4m (13ft).
The Crew Dragon is equipped with 16 Draco thrusters that are used to maneuver the vehicle in orbit. Each Draco is capable of producing 90 pounds of force in the vacuum of space.
When we wanted to take Dragon and make it human-rated, I think we took a different approach to spaceship design than has previously been done, because we wanted this to feel like a 21st Century spaceship. Probably one of the biggest features of Dragon is the touchscreens on the inside. We designed them not just to be very functional, but with user experience in mind.SpaceX engineer John Federspiel
The three large displays that allow Hurley and Behnken to monitor systems and control the spacecraft are a world away from the analog buttons, dials, and control stick that featured in the cockpit of the shuttle, which flew from 1981 to 2011.
The flight to the ISS lasted 19 hours, and yes, the Crew Dragon does have a toilet — just in case. Details about how it works have not been publicized. But one astronaut who worked on the Crew Dragon program said he has seen the design and said the accommodations are “perfectly adequate for that task.”
What is the purpose of the Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission?
The mission, known as Demo-2, will allow the US to once again send humans into space. With the ultimate goal of reaching the Moon and Mars.
According to NASA, this is a demonstration mission (hence the Demo-2 name) to show SpaceX’s ability to ferry astronauts to the space station and back safely. It is the final major step required by SpaceX’s astronaut carrier, the Crew Dragon, to get certified by NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme for more long-term manned missions to space.
This is also a space race but this time between SpaceX and Boing, the other company working with NASA to create the nextgen space vehicles.
Who are the crew of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission?
Robert “Bob” L. Behnken, 49. Prior to the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission he has flown two space shuttle missions to the ISS and served as NASA’s Chief Astronaut from 2012 to 2015. He launched on the STS-123 mission to deliver Japan’s Kibo laboratory to the station in 2008 and later flew STS-130 on Endeavour to deliver the Tranquility module. Behnken has performed six spacewalks and logged more than 29 days in space to date.
Behnken is a native of St. Ann, Missouri, Behnken is a U.S. Air Force colonel and test pilot with a doctorate from Caltech in mechanical engineering. He joined NASA’s astronaut corps in July 2000.
Behnken is married to Megan McArthur, who also happens to be a NASA astronaut. You can follow Behnken on Twitter at @AstroBehnken.
Douglas G. Hurley, 53, is a retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel who joined NASA’s astronaut corp back in 2000, coincidentally, the same class as Behnken. Hurley has flown on two shuttle missions, the STS-127 mission on Endeavour in 2009 and the STS-135 mission on Atlantis in 2011. Both missions hauled fresh supplies and gear to the station. Hurley’s second shuttle flight was NASA’s final mission of the space shuttle program.
Hurley hails from Apalachin, New York, and served as a pilot and test pilot for the U.S. Marine Corp. He has a degree in civil engineering from Tulane University in Louisiana and is married to fellow NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg. They have one son. Hurley has logged just over 27 days in space. You can follow him on Twitter at @Astro_Doug.
What will the Crew Dragon commanders do in space?
Behnken and Hurley will test the Crew Dragon’s environmental control system, the displays and controls, and the maneuvering thrusters.
They will also monitor the autonomous docking system during the approach to the space station, according to NASA.
The duo will become members of the Expedition 63 crew and perform further tests on the SpaceX Crew Dragon along with other tasks related to the space station.
But the pair’s main mission is to conclude the validation process that is required by NASA to ensure the spacecraft designed to carry astronauts can operate safely.
How will they return from the ISS?
The Demo-2 mission is expected to last anywhere between one and four months. But NASA said the duration of this mission would be determined by when the next commercial crew will be able to travel to the space station.
The spacecraft will be capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days.
Behnken adds: “The space shuttle was 10 times larger in terms of mass than you needed to get into low-Earth orbit… flying on a smaller rocket, really focused on the crew mission… provides another level of safety.”
Dragon is a spaceship that’s all about safety and reliability. We designed it to be two-fault tolerant, which means that any two things could fail, so I could lose a flight computer and a thruster and I could still bring the crew home safelyJohn Federspiel
When it returns to Earth, the Crew Dragon can’t simply land on a runway like the space shuttle. “I think there’s an argument that the return is more dangerous in some ways than the ascent,” says Elon Musk.
Like its uncrewed counterpart, the Crew Dragon spacecraft is equipped with a heat shield and parachutes to return to Earth.
Once a landing day is identified for the Demo-2 mission, Behnken and Hurley will pack the spacecraft with items they may want to return to Earth and prepare for undocking. On undocking day, Crew Dragon will back away from the station and slowly make its way outside a so-called “keep-out sphere,” a safety zone around the orbiting laboratory.
Crew Dragon will then return to Earth the following day. Ahead of reentry, the spacecraft will jettison its stubby service module (which contains its solar arrays and other systems) and position itself heat shield down for the plunge through Earth’s atmosphere.
After reentry, Crew Dragon will deploy four parachutes to slow its descent further. The spacecraft will splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just of Florida’s East Coast where a SpaceX recovery ship will be ready to retrieve Behnken and Hurley within an hour after landing.
What’s next for the SpaceX Crew Dragon?
If Demo-2 is successful, SpaceX will be allowed to go ahead with more manned missions to the space stations as part of their 2.6 billion US dollar (£2.1 billion) contract with NASA.
Boeing also has a similar deal with the space agency, worth 4.2 billion US dollars (£3.4 billion), to send astronauts to the space station in its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule, although its vehicle is not expected to be ready until next year.
As far as SpaceX and Elon Musk are concerned the next stop is Mars.