Later this month, two NASA astronauts will enter the brand new SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and be launched into orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS).
This final test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule will mark the first time that American astronauts will launch from American soil since the shuttering of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
If successful, the test flight will mark a new era in American spaceflight, validating SpaceX’s crew transport capabilities and providing the opportunity for the U.S. to launch its own astronauts for the first time in nearly a decade.
Digital Trends spoke to one of the two astronauts who will be on board that historic test flight, NASA’s Doug Hurley, about what the mission means for the future of human space exploration.
Facing down history
Hurley is acutely aware of the significance of the test flight for the wider space community, but he tries to put that aside and focus on his role in the mission along with his colleague, Bob Behnken.
“You would have to be living in a vacuum not to hear about it,” Hurley said, “but it’s like any other space mission in that you’re focused on the part that you’re playing. So Bob and I are trying to do everything we can to make this mission successful. That means knowing the procedures and knowing the vehicle. And then we let the mission go where it needs to go.”
A decade of technological development
Hurley has a unique perspective on the development of American spaceflight technology, as he piloted Space Shuttle missions including the final flight of the program in 2011.
In the intervening years, spacecraft and their attendant technology have developed considerably, in terms of size, efficiency, and safety.
“The Shuttle was a much larger vehicle — ten times larger, about 220,000 to 250,000 pounds at launch, and that was just the Shuttle itself,” Hurley said. “Then there were the external tanks as well. So the thrust was much greater. The solid rocket boosters inherently burn very rough, so the first two minutes you vibrated very significantly. You could shake loose a filling. It was a pretty rough ride.”
By comparison, the Crew Dragon launch should be relatively smooth. “The Falcon 9 is a liquid-fueled rocket, so the anticipation is that it will be a much smoother ride. Although the Shuttle was limited to 3 Gs during ascent, but with the Dragon you’ll be up close to 5 Gs by the time you get to the main engine cutoff. So it’ll be more Gs, but it should be a smoother ride.”
The Crew Dragon is also a significantly safer vehicle than older spacecraft. Although this is the vehicle’s first manned test flight, which of course carries risks, it is designed to have what is referred to as “end-to-end abort capability,” meaning that the crew can eject from the craft at any point from launch to orbit if something goes wrong.
Hurley compared it favorably to the Space Shuttle, which had “black zones” in which the crew could not eject, even if they knew something had gone wrong.
How to fly a Crew Dragon
Most of the test flight of the Crew Dragon will be automated, with Behnken and Hurley on hand to take over manual control of the spacecraft only if necessary. But the manual controls are radically different from previous spacecraft like the Space Shuttle as well, with big changes like the move from physical hardware buttons and switches to primarily touchscreen-based controls.
“The Space Shuttle was developed in the 70s. It flew its first flight in 1981. And while it did get some upgrades over the years, both inside and out, it was certainly older technology when we were finishing up the program in 2011,” Hurley said.
“The Dragon is in many ways the opposite of the Shuttle. From the outside, the Dragon looks very cool — my 10-year-old tells me constantly that it’s the coolest looking spaceship ever — but inside, the displays and how we interact with the vehicle is very different.
“The Shuttle had roughly 2,000 switches and circuit breakers. So there were almost too many in some ways. You really had to be careful actuating a switch because it was very easy to hit the switch next to the one you wanted and to perhaps make things worse rather than better if you were adjusting the vehicle.
“So with the Dragon, we have three big touchscreen displays between Bob and I. Everything is really intuitive. We do have some hardware buttons, but it’s minimal, and that’s by design.
“The vehicle is also much more automated than the Shuttle was, which is in most cases better because it allows the crew to focus on the mission rather than on operating the vehicle.
“And ergonomically, SpaceX worked very hard to make it a comfortable vehicle. It’s pretty spacious. We’re excited to get to fly it.”
The new frontier of private spaceflight
The test flight is also significant as a model for the role that private companies like SpaceX could play in future NASA operations. NASA has laid out its plans to commercialize low-earth orbit and administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphasized his desire for NASA to become a customer of private companies that offer space-based services in order to save money.
For Hurley, this change to a greater incorporation of private companies into NASA operations is a natural extension of the cooperation that NASA already has with other space agencies around the world.
“Looking at it from the International Space Station perspective — there were 15 countries involved in the space station, we’ve got five major partners that operate the space station to some degree. So it truly is an international effort,” he said.
“I think going to the moon and ultimately Mars, that effort is not only going to be an international effort to a degree, but certainly a public-private effort as well.
“And this is the first initial step for how we operate, with government agencies and private entities working together for this greater goal. And to be successful it’s going to have to be a mix of public-private and international.”
Science aboard the ISS
Exactly how long Hurley and Behnken will spend on the ISS depends upon the readiness of the first crewed operational flight of the Crew Dragon, but they expect to be there for approximately three months.
During this time, in addition to monitoring and performing tests on the Crew Dragon, they will likely be involved in some of the scientific research on the ISS as well. The research there covers a huge breadth of topics, from 3D printing human organs to studying how food can be grown in space.
One area of study which Hurley is particularly interested in is research into how time in microgravity affects the human body. He and his colleague Behnken have been training to take measurements on themselves and others, so they will be the subject of research as well as the conductors of it.
“One of the experiments we’ve gotten a fair amount of training on is performing science on ourselves — studying the different ways that the human body changes in space, like the study of how pressure builds in your eyeball when you’re in space,” Hurley explained.
“It was kind of fun training on an ultrasound device for studying that while in orbit. So I’m most excited about that. I’m excited to see the results.”
Prepping for launch
In the next few weeks before the launch, the astronauts have some last pieces of training on simulators, then some time off to set their personal affairs in order before they depart for space.
Then they’ll head to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they’ll be placed in quarantine in crew quarters there. Quarantine is a typical part of the procedure for any mission to the ISS, but it’s especially important now with the global pandemic of the coronavirus.
As the astronauts prepare themselves, the teams at SpaceX and NASA are going through their own final preparations, including a final parachute test to ensure the spacecraft can slow on its return journey to Earth and splashdown safely into the ocean.
The launch is set for May 27 at 1:32 p.m. PT, and the world will be watching Behnken and Hurley take to the skies for this historic flight.
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