At 3:22 pm EDT on May 30th, SpaceX sent NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken into space in the Crew Dragon spacecraft via a Falcon 9 rocket. For the first time in almost a decade, since NASA terminated its Space Shuttle Program in 2011, a U.S.-based craft and crew have been sent towards the heavens
“Today a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” said Jim Bridenstine, a senior NASA administrator, following the historic launch. And in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic tragedy, this might cheer us up a little.
SpaceX’s launch heralds a significant landmark in space travel history. It’s the first time we’ve seen such collaboration between the public and private sectors. Never before have people been launched into space in a spacecraft that was designed and built by a commercial company. This project is introducing a new epoch, wherein private space travel might make the jump from fiction to reality sooner than we expected.
The Mission Objectives
The main objective of the mission is to complete a test-run in order to evaluate the high-tech aeronautic equipment being used. SpaceX’s and NASA’s far-sighted goal is to run long-duration space missions where the ships and their crews will be at the International Space Station (ISS) for lengthy periods of time.
NASA explained, “As SpaceX’s final flight test, it will validate all aspects of its crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft, spacesuits, Falcon 9 launch vehicle, launch pad 39A and operations capabilities.” The astronauts will perform various maneuvers, such as a roll, pitch, and yaw. Depending on conditions and preliminary results, they will also practice docking and undocking. Throughout the mission, the crew will continually test the control systems.
The people chosen for this historic mission are Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken. They both bring copious amounts of knowledge and experience to the table. Hurley (right), who is largely responsible for the launch, landing, and recovery, has already completed two space flights, where he served as a robotics operator. He holds a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. Prior to joining the ranks of NASA in 2000, he was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Behnken (left) is the mission commander. Besides overseeing the whole mission, his primary responsibilities include docking, undocking, and rendezvous. He, too, has the experience of two space shuttle flights under his belt. On those missions, he was a spacecraft pilot. He holds Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and mechanical engineering. He also holds a master’s and a doctorate in the latter. Before coming to NASA in 2000, Behnken was in the U.S. airforce, where he served as a flight test engineer.
The Man Behind the Rocket
By now you probably already know his name. Elon Musk is a technology entrepreneur, philanthropist, money-man, and one of the world’s leading futurists. He’s the guy that takes science fiction ideas and spends his money (he’s now worth almost $40 billion) on trying to make them a reality. He has been referred to by some as “The real Tony Stark”, i.e. Ironman.
He made his big breakthrough in the tech world as one of the founders of PayPal. Shortly after PayPal’s rise to fame and ubiquity of use in 2002, it was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion. Its huge success propelled Musk further into the world of tech and led him to start working on a host of ambitious and futuristic projects.
One of the most notable endeavors is Tesla, an electric and clean vehicle company. Another interesting one is Neuralink, whose aim to merge computational technology with the human brain, which might allow us to interact with tech and other humans in previously unimaginable ways.
For example, a tourist that has visited a given city, say Barcelona, might be able to upload the data of her visit (collected not by photos and documents, but by real sensory experience) onto some sort of data platform. Then, if you travel to Barcelona you can download that neural and sensory experience, and you’ll already “know” some useful things about the city.
And of course, Musk is the founder of SpaceX, the company cooperating with NASA to advance space travel. We are living in strange and difficult times, but the launch gives us some hope. As one lucid writer from Forbes put it, “Can all of us soar into space to escape the coronavirus? No. But in embracing the optimism of the SpaceX launch, we can remember that our country can cure almost any problem when we collaborate in new ways.”