The launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft was delayed Wednesday, but the mission is too important to drop altogether. The effort continues on Saturday, May 30, when the weather is expected to be better. There is a lot to understand about the mission before then.
The launch of the Crew Dragon is a mission dubbed "Demo-2" by SpaceX and NASA. The collaboration between the private company and the government agency is a historic new step in the field of space travel, and it could change the future of space programs in the U.S. altogether. The mission was simply to launch the Crew Dragon from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to the International Space Station, yet it has implications far beyond that.
The mission was delayed at the last minute on Wednesday due to stormy weather conditions at the launch site. With an operation this delicate, precision is critical, so an abundance of caution is necessary. While some may have been disappointed by the canceled mission, the false start did help to drum up public excitement for it even more.
The process for launching the Crew Dragon will look nearly identical on Saturday, except that it will take place about an hour earlier. Accounting for orbital dynamics, the craft needs to leave the ground at 3:22 p.m. ET to get on a direct path to the International Space Station. Here is everything you need to know about the Crew Dragon's mission, Demo-2.
Simply put, the mission of the Crew Dragon is to take two NASA astronauts to the international space station. SpaceX has previously sent Dragon spacecraft to the station with supplies, but never with humans onboard. Since 2011, the U.S. has only sent astronauts to the space station on Russian shuttles, since NASA's Space Shuttle Program expired.
Rather than develop the technology in-house, NASA decided to court private companies to develop its next spacecraft starting in 2014. The idea was to drive down costs while encouraging innovation and also allow NASA to focus on exploration and other forward-thinking goals.
SpaceX was given a $2.6 billion contract to develop a space shuttle in 2014, while at the same time Boeing was given one for $4.2 billion. While Boeing is still working on its Starliner project, SpaceX has won the race the starting line.
The Crew Dragon was originally meant to return to earth shortly after launch, according to a report by CNN, but due to a shortage of personnel at the International Space Station, NASA decided to send it all the way. The craft will even test out its various capabilities while in space, including docking and manual flight, according to a report by The Verge.
"It's obviously something that we want to make sure we understand completely for future crews in case they ever have to fly the vehicle manually," Hurley said during a press conference.
This test will determine the United States' capabilities when it comes to the International Space Station. Future flights will be able to carry up to seven astronauts, as well as a limited amount of cargo.
Learn more about Dragon’s design pic.twitter.com/Fw5OZ9Ecwm— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 27, 2020
The crew dragon itself is a gumdrop-shaped craft based on the designs of previous unmanned SpaceX vehicles. It has been outfitted with a full life support system and seven seats, with less storage space than its counterparts.
Aesthetically speaking, the SpaceX team did its best to make the Crew Dragon look distinct in the world of real-life space shuttles. The engineers aimed for a "21st century design," and for up-to-date technology as well. That includes touch-screen interfaces and custom-molded seating, making the craft look more like a sci-fi movie than earlier manned space missions.
The Crew Dragon is only the fifth spacecraft ever to be rated as safe enough for human occupants by NASA, with the other four being the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle vehicles.
One of the key aspects of SpaceX's plan to make space travel cheaper is to design reusable hardware. In the past, space shuttles and rockets have only been able to withstand one trip to space and back, but the Crew Dragon should be able to handle three trips, according to CNN. The company's Falcon 9 rockets can be reused as well. When the Crew Dragon launches, it will be recovered from a seafaring drone ship by SpaceX. These rockets have been successfully reused dozens of times.
The Crew Dragon will take two experienced astronauts up with it: 49-year-old Bob Behnken and 53-year-old Douglas Hurley. Both men achieved the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, but have spent more time with NASA. In preparation for Demo-2, both worked closely with SpaceX as well to ensure that they are familiar with the shuttle they will take on its maiden voyage.
Both Behnken and Hurley have hundreds of hours under their belts flying supersonic jets. They also flew on previous Space Shuttle missions before NASA shut down its program. They were chosen to pilot the Crew Dragon back in 2018, but they became true public figures this week in the build-up to the launch.
International Space Station
The International Space Station has been orbiting earth for two decades now, and is considered a beacon of the post-Cold War peace era. The United States and Russia remain the stations two primary operators, but 19 countries have sent astronauts to it over the years, with a total of 240 people visiting it.
The space station is used to conduct experiments in microgravity, gathering data on how the human body responds to prolonged times in space, developing new medications, and other things.
The International Space Station usually hosts six astronauts at a time, but right now only three are there — one American and two Russians. This is why NASA decided to send the Crew Dragon all the way to the station rather than going on a shorter test flight. It will return to earth in August.
NASA has assured the public that it is safe to launch the Crew Dragon in spite of the coronavirus pandemic. The astronauts have follow strict quarantine protocols, while an abundance of precautions have reportedly been followed with everyone who contacts their equipment. Sadly, the pandemic did keep the launch from becoming a massive public event, but many public officials were still able to attend.
Finally, many have reasonably wondered how much a mission like this might cost. For context, the U.S. has previously paid Russia up to $86 million per astronaut, per trip to get Americans to the International Space Station, and the point of a domestic space shuttle program was to mitigate those costs. NASA estimates that the Crew Dragon flight will cost about $55 million per seat and that the cost will decrease after a few successful missions. Other estimates are even lower, suggesting that NASA will save a lot of money if it can make these flights consistent.
The Crew Dragon launch is now scheduled for Saturday, May 30 at 3:22 p.m. ET. Watch it live on most news networks or on NASA's official YouTube channel.