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Unleash the Dragon: NASA and SpaceX Count Down to the Next Stage of Space Travel

For the first time since 2011, astronauts are scheduled to reach orbit from American soil—and the mission could mark the inauguration of a new normal for travel to the stars

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: NASA and SpaceX have rescheduled the launch of the Crew Dragon capsule due to bad weather. The next attempt is currently planned for Saturday, May 30, at 3:22 p.m. ET.

Three things in life have reliably made me cry: a death in the family, a broken bone, and a crewed rocket launch. In the first two cases, the tears are a product of pain, either emotional or physical. In the third, they’re the happy, overpowering result of a mélange of more positive emotions: inspiration, pride, exultation, awe, wonder. When this piece is published, I’ll be at T-minus six hours to blubbering, because barring equipment or weather problems, Wednesday afternoon will mark what may be the most momentous launch in the past 40 years of U.S. human spaceflight—and, perhaps, the inauguration of a new normal for travel to the stars.

The last time an astronaut reached orbit from American soil was July 8, 2011, when Atlantis lifted off for the 135th and final mission in the 30-year history of NASA’s space shuttle program. “I can’t believe it’s been that long, but it has,” says Mike Massimino, a former astronaut who rode Atlantis to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 and, in 2002, took Columbia’s last successful flight before its fatal explosion on reentry in February 2003. NASA planned to replace the space shuttle program—NASA’s fourth human spaceflight initiative, after Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo—with the Ares rocket, which was to be the bedrock of the Constellation program designed to send humans back to the Moon and to Mars. But Constellation, over budget and behind schedule, was canceled in 2010, which soon left the first (and, thus far, only) country to put people on the moon incapable of putting people into low-Earth orbit. Since then, NASA’s astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russia’s Soyuz rockets and spacecraft at a cost of upwards of $80 million per seat. (The U.S., the Soviet Union/Russia, and China are the only nations that have launched crewed spacecraft.)

If all goes well, Wednesday will change that, but not through NASA’s ingenuity alone. The Demo-2 mission, which is scheduled to lift off at 4:33 p.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, will send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) in a Crew Dragon (or Dragon 2) capsule conceived and manufactured by SpaceX. The capsule will be propelled by another SpaceX creation, the Falcon 9 rocket. Until Wednesday, no NASA astronaut had flown on a privately owned spacecraft. The public-private partnership that led to Demo-2—the first fruit of the Commercial Crew program intended to delegate transportation to and from the ISS to private companies—is what makes this mission unique, and possibly precedent-setting.

“A hundred years from now, I think we’re going to see this as kind of a dividing line in the space program,” Massimino says. “Before this, it was all governments sending people to space. And although we’ve been kind of easing this concept in over the years, this is truly, I think, a dividing line. From now on it’s not just governments, but it’s also private companies who can send people to space. And I think that’s going to be the way this event is remembered for history.”

Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, are the first American astronauts to take off in a new crewed-launch vehicle since John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen boarded Columbia for the orbiter’s first launch on April 12, 1981. The two former test pilots graduated from the same astronaut class in 2000, which also included their future spouses, astronauts K. Megan McArthur and Karen Nyberg. Behnken and Hurley were in each other’s weddings, and each has an elementary-school-aged son. And although they haven’t previously spent time in space together, they’re both veterans of two space shuttle missions apiece. Hurley piloted Atlantis in the last shuttle mission, STS-135. Every manned mission to the moon, and the first and last shuttle missions, launched from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, where Crew Dragon awaits its wild ride.

For the 57-year-old Massimino, who was selected as an astronaut candidate four years before Behnken and Hurley, there’s some symmetry in a couple of ex-colleagues who helped usher out the shuttle being the first to take flight in the futuristic Crew Dragon. “That’s the only experience we have with flying a vehicle, really, is those who flew the shuttle,” he says. “So I’m glad those guys are going to be the ones who are getting a chance to do this.”

The astronauts’ upcoming rides will look and feel different from their former ones. Before they ascend to the top of the Falcon 9, Behnken and Hurley will take a Tesla Model X to the launch pad, forsaking the quaint modified motorhomes (colloquially called the “Astrovans”) that carried Apollo-era and shuttle-era astronauts to their rockets. After they leave the ground-bound vehicle built by one of Elon Musk’s companies, they’ll enter another that will carry them to the ISS, which orbits some 250 miles above Earth’s surface. There, the contrast between old and new will be even more pronounced.

The shuttle, Massimino says, “was 1970s technology, and we flew it for 30 years.” The craft’s flight deck was festooned with roughly 2,000 switches, gauges, and circuit breakers, which made flying it highly human-intensive. “To do things like dump water, to turn on and off the power system, open and close the payload bay doors, work the robot arm … just about 90 percent of everything had to be done with crew doing it,” Massimino notes. On a recent episode of Planetary Radio, SpaceX consultant (and two-time shuttle astronaut) Garrett Reisman said, “That was really the pinnacle of human-in-the-loop, manual control of an incredibly complex machine. We’ll never make a flying machine that will demand that much crew, I think, ever again.”

It’s tempting to romanticize the more manually controlled craft that carried astronauts upward for decades, but their wimpy processing power would make them as anachronistic today as an airplane without instruments or an ocean vessel without GPS. “It’s about time we entered the 21st century in spaceflight,” Massimino says. Crew Dragon, which is 27 feet tall and 13 feet in diameter, can carry up to seven people, but barring malfunctions, its passengers are mostly along for the ride. The capsule is capable of operating autonomously and can dock with the ISS without guidance from human hands. On the inside, it’s sleek; switches and gauges have been replaced by touch screens that the astronauts can manipulate without removing their gloves.

Those gloves are attached to white-and-gray patch-free suits that look slim compared to the iconic but clunky “pumpkin suits” the shuttle astronauts wore. “We had so many different parts,” Massimino says. “It took a while to get dressed inside of that thing. You needed help. It was really cumbersome to put on, not always that comfortable. This looks a lot better.” Astronauts are sort of stylish now, like less boxy Cybertrucks.

Between the tapered capsule, the streamlined suits, and the Falcon 9’s unprecedented reusability—whereas earlier rockets were one-offs, each Falcon 9 is designed to land and be refurbished for flight at least 10 times—spaceflight is starting to resemble the vision we were sold by countless sci-fi stories. (The Falcon 9’s landings on floating drone ships make for an especially sci-fi flex.) Aesthetics, of course, come second to safety. But in that respect, too, the Crew Dragon represents a step forward from earlier eras. In the event of a fuel leak on the launchpad, the astronauts can perform an emergency egress from the capsule and zipline to an armored vehicle waiting 1,200 feet away. If any rocket abnormalities develop after liftoff, the capsule can separate from the Falcon 9 and use its own thrusters to fly free of an explosion. That launch escape capability extends all the way to orbit, a first for a spacecraft.

“That’s the piece that’s really a huge leap forward from where we’ve been,” says Scott Lewers, an executive vice president who oversees the Science Channel, which along with its sister channel Discovery will simulcast a celebrity-packed Space Launch Live pregame show on Wednesday, as well as the actual launch (which will also stream on NASA TV and elsewhere). “That even if something does go wrong, they can be rescued and saved.”

In theory, those measures protect Behnken and Hurley from recurrences of the Apollo 1 or Challenger disasters. Yet the shadows of those tragedies loom over every launch, and as Columbia demonstrated, astronauts aren’t truly safe until they return to dry land. As Hurley said in NASA & SpaceX: Journey to the Future, a two-hour documentary that aired on the Science and Discovery Channels in the days leading up to the launch, “Sometimes things do blow up.”

SpaceX has proved that repeatedly. In June 2015, a Falcon 9 rocket failed and disintegrated when a single strut broke free and punctured a helium tank, destroying its nonhuman cargo. The following September, another Falcon 9 that was supposed to carry a satellite into orbit blew up in a test fire. Most concerning, a leaky component caused a Crew Dragon capsule—much like the one Behnken and Hurley will board—to explode during testing last April. Mishaps like those significantly delayed the first manned Commercial Crew launch, which was originally slated for 2017. Each of those accidents exposed a structural weakness that was corrected, but there’s no guarantee that every flaw has been found. And this week’s cargo is precious. “It really does raise the stakes and the seriousness, because human life is involved,” Lewers says.

Before it could convince NASA to put its astronauts’ lives in a private entity’s hands, SpaceX, which was founded by Musk in 2002 and first contracted with NASA in 2006, had to overcome considerable skepticism and clear innumerable technical hurdles. Commercial Crew competition began in 2010, and NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing as its partners in September 2014. Each successful launch since then has brought the Demo-2 milestone a little closer. (The final flight test of Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled for next year.) The predecessor to the Crew Dragon, the Cargo Dragon (or Dragon 1), completed 20 resupply missions, and the Crew Dragon passed an in-flight abort test in January and sailed through its final uncrewed challenge, a roundtrip flight to the ISS (Demo-1), in March. As carefully as a capsule approaching the ISS’s docking adapter, SpaceX crept closer to the culmination of Commercial Crew.

“When they first started talking about it, I was like, ‘Yeah, no way,’” Massimino says. “I don’t see how a commercial company, a private company, can do this and be able to afford to do it, and to try to do it with an eye on being profitable at it. There’s no way that you can do these things. And then they started doing them.”

In a way, we’re lucky to live in a time when spaceflight still seems almost magical, astronauts are still heroes who put their lives on the line, and the legions of less visible builders and planners who pull off the improbable still dedicate years of their lives to a single launch. Those obstacles explain why I well up on cue whenever I watch a real-life launch or landing, or any movie scene in which the anxious occupants of Mission Control celebrate something. On Wednesday afternoon—or Saturday or Sunday afternoon, if weather delays the launch—I’ll look like Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 (minus the sweet vest), wiping my eyes and staring off-screen in silent relief and elation as the rest of the room riots.

But if Demo-2 is successful—clearing the way for the first “operational” flight of Crew Dragon, Crew-1, later this year—we’ll get a glimpse of a world where a launch from Kennedy Space Center could start to seem as routine as a flight from JFK. That’s a world with rapidly reusable rockets that cut down on cost and turnaround time, where civilians can do more than dream about experiencing space, and where travel to more distant destinations in the solar system isn’t as prohibitive. It’s not right around the corner, but it’s closer than it was when humans last walked on the Moon, even if it sometimes seems as though the space program has stalled since then. As NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in NASA & SpaceX: Journey to the Future, “We’d like to have access to space be so low cost that industry is sending workers to space in a way that’s going to be transformative for humankind.” In a nod to Neil Armstrong, he also called commercialization of space “the next giant leap.”

Even in a future where space travel is motivated more by potential profit than curiosity, science, and national bragging rights, there will still be a role for government agencies’ R&D dollars—many of which, in NASA’s case, are earmarked for the oft-delayed Space Launch System. “By turning these other things over to private enterprise, NASA can take the taxpayers’ dollars and the development dollars and put them into things that private enterprise isn’t ready for yet,” Massimino says. “And I think that’s the way that you work together, with the government kind of leading and helping, and then private enterprise using what they’re good at—the ingenuity, the speed—and capitalizing on the government knowhow and paving the way to get even further.”

For now, though, the prospect of a crewed launch made possible by anything other than a government agency is a total novelty, and the pageantry of a launch remains the most riveting of human-made spectacles. The astronauts striding toward their date with destiny; the headset-wearing specialists giving the go; the ticking countdown clock; the columns of flame that materialize from thin air as someone says “Liftoff” and violently propel the payload off the pad—so slowly, at first, that it always looks like gravity will win; the precisely planned choreography of stages detaching and boosters firing on the white-knuckle, 10-minute trip to space.

More than at most times, we need that now. “In this pandemic reality, I think the country and the human spirit is looking for these moments for us to rally, and to bring back some normalcy and celebrate ingenuity and the human spirit,” Lewers says. I can already hear James Horner’s string section swelling.

Maybe that’s laying it on a little thick, but at a time when many of us can’t escape our front doors, the sight of two astronauts escaping Earth sounds like a literally uplifting event. The global majority response to the pandemic has been inspiring in some respects, but it’s tough to see the bright side of a crisis that’s claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Who wouldn’t want to leave the planet today?

Apollo 11 didn’t solve the strife of the ’60s, and for most Americans, a successful launch on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday would be at best a brief distraction from more earthly concerns, the pandemic most pressing at all. Even the launch isn’t immune to political overtones or pandemic-driven precautions. President Trump and Vice President Pence will be in attendance at Kennedy Space Center. Not far from them, the chloroquine-promoting, pandemic-downplaying, stay-at-home-order-defying Musk will compose his next tweets. Behnken, Hurley, and their support staffs have adopted stricter quarantine protocols and practiced social distancing, and the throngs of onlookers that typically gather to watch rockets streak skyward will be forced to stay away. “People watching the launch together in person, that’s taken a big hit,” Massimino says.

At a time when calendars are devoid of high-profile live events, though, millions will be watching worldwide. As Behnken and Hurley prep for liftoff, Massimino, who twice took off from pad 39A, will be flashing back to his own launches. That’s only one ingredient of the cocktail of emotions and memories he expects his brain to be bathed in. “I’m going to be thinking of my friends,” he says. “I’m going to be thinking of the program. I’m going to think of the new era that has started.” Every watcher will be alone with their thoughts: at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California; at ISS mission control in Houston; at launch control in Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center; in my living room; in your living room; in space enthusiast Katy Perry’s living room. Until, that is, the transfixing, collective telepathy takes over. 10 … 9 … 8 …