Dozens of Starlink internet constellation launches. SpaceX’s fail-fast-and-fix-fast philosophy embodied in wildly popular Starship test flights. Rovers touching down on foreign worlds, renewed plans to put humans on the moon, and an accelerating launch cadence.
All things space – and especially all things SpaceX – have increasingly dominated headlines in recent years, reports News 6 partner Florida Today. After all, the company did return the U.S. to human spaceflight status in 2020 with the first launch of astronauts from American soil since the space shuttle era. And its Falcon 9 rocket finished the year accounting for 80% of the launches from Florida.
The company’s next high-profile launch, slated for 6:11 a.m. on April 22, will take four astronauts to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center in a Crew Dragon capsule. The sixth-month Crew-2 mission will mark the company’s second fully operational ISS flight for NASA and third overall with humans aboard.
For Space Coast residents able to step outside and watch rockets tear through the sky, spaceflight might seem more routine than ever. And it’s not slowing down – the industry is inhaling billions of dollars in private and government investments, massive rocket factories like Blue Origin’s are on the rise, and several new rockets are expected to fly in the next year alone.
But crewed spaceflight makes “routine” a complicated word. Humans add countless factors to missions and their safety weighs heavily on industry leaders like Elon Musk, who has personally promised the children of astronauts his company will do everything in its power to ensure the safety of their parents.
An emergency abort scenario that sees the astronauts rapidly thrust away from the Falcon 9 rocket below them, for example, could not only endanger lives but also ripple out to ISS accessibility, launch cadence, and public perception of spaceflight. The latter is especially critical to the several companies vying to make space tourism accessible and safe.
Experts generally agree that technological progress, experience, and historical lessons make today’s crewed missions safer than ever. In the bigger picture, human spaceflight might not be “there” yet as far as being fully routine, but they say progress in this arena is expectedly incremental.
The advantage of cadence
When NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Europe’s Thomas Pesquet, and Japan’s Aki Hoshide launch from pad 39A on Thursday, their capsule and the rocket below will be making returns to space.
Their Crew Dragon capsule, named Endeavour, hosted Demo-2 in May 2020, the return of astronauts launching from American soil since the end of the shuttle program in 2011. And for the first time, NASA has agreed to fly humans on a previously flown Falcon 9 booster, too.
SpaceX’s reusability ambitions, which to date include 79 successful booster landings, have helped fuel the company’s accelerating launch cadence. But because only one family of rocket is responsible for both crewed and uncrewed missions, every Falcon 9 flight is applicable to astronauts.
Garrett Reisman, a former shuttle astronaut who joined SpaceX’s Crew Dragon team and still consults for the company, said the perception of Starlink launches, for example, might be one of routine. Each of the 24 liftoffs to date, however, have been a chance to learn.
“We learned a lot over the course of the space shuttle, especially after Challenger and Columbia, so that when I flew it near the end of the program, the risk was much lower,” Reisman told FLORIDA TODAY. “It won’t be too much longer before we will have flown Falcon 9 as many times as we flew the space shuttle.”
“The fact that we are flying Falcon 9 for other missions and rapidly getting this flight heritage is a huge advantage,” Reisman said.
But the capsule has to perform, too. Not only on its trip to the ISS, but also during its six-month stay and subsequent Earth re-entry. This second version of Dragon has followed through with three successful roundtrip flights.
Crew Dragon is one of two vehicles worldwide that can take astronauts to and from the ISS. The other American-made capsule, Boeing’s Starliner, is still under development and is expected to fly a re-do of its first uncrewed test sometime this year. In the event of a SpaceX mishap and subsequent investigation, that leaves the U.S. with spaceflight’s longtime standby: the Russian-made Soyuz.
“We’re still at the early stage of the learning curve on the spacecraft,” Reisman said. “Still a long way from the 135 missions of the space shuttle, but the advantage we enjoy relative to shuttle is there’s a lot less that can go wrong on Dragon. It doesn’t have all the complexity of the space shuttle while it also has modern technology.”
When Crew-1, which launched to the ISS in November, returns for splashdown on April 28, Reisman said he will be paying close attention “because it’s really only the third time that Dragon has come back with this particular configuration.”
“After we’ve done it 100 times, I’m probably going to feel a lot better about it,” he said.
When it comes to Musk, Reisman said he’s just as busy as people think. Between SpaceX’s development programs like Starship and established ones like Falcon, Tesla-related responsibilities, and raising a family of his own, it goes without saying.
All those responsibilities “don’t mean he doesn’t pay close attention,” Reisman said. “He does feel the responsibility and he does care a lot about the safety of the flight.”
Part of the rapid developments in spaceflight today are driven by several companies. Some, like SpaceX and Boeing, were vying to be first to the ISS with commercial spacecraft. Others like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are taking more space tourism-focused approaches, at least initially.
Unlike the days of shuttle, today’s commercial environment can seemingly tolerate more in the way of unexpected events. A shuttle issue could mean months or longer between missions, but one company standing down in Texas today doesn’t necessarily mean another in Florida has to do the same.
It mirrors the early days of commercial aviation when tickets were expensive, but not so early that flights were impossible to find. The first all-civilian SpaceX mission known as Inspiration 4, for example, is currently set for no earlier than September and will include a multi-day trip in Earth orbit. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, recently hinted that the next flight of his company’s tourism-focused New Shepard capsule will include its first astronauts.
The multi-million-dollar prices for these flights will take years to come down to a level affordable by everyday people, but the risks are still very real no matter how routine space feels to observers. And in another parallel with aviation, even one mishap can destroy public trust in a vehicle or company.
Every new mode of transportation has faced similar challenges throughout history, said Rich Cooper, vice president of strategic communications and outreach at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the industry.
“When there was the first automobile accident and the same thing with aviation or for that matter even sailing vessels – you build off all those lessons learned and the scar tissue that occurs.” Cooper said. “In the end, these are all vehicles built by imperfect beings.”
Eventually, Cooper said, every company will learn lessons and change around them to built trust in their products. Some, like Virgin Galactic and its space tourism business, have already had to rebuild after incidents like the 2014 VSS Enterprise crash that killed a test pilot.
“The fortunate thing we have today is we have a lot more options whether that be Dragon, Starliner coming online shortly, or Blue Origin,” Cooper said. “The risk is still there, but we are fortunate to have different capabilities and different vendors that allow us to keep moving forward.”
Moving beyond routine
From the public’s perspective, seeing a 230-foot rocket ascend over the Space Coast is a visceral experience – and, for now, the only one within reach. Beyond that, most launches might feel similar to someone who can’t experience more of the mission.
But as the frequency increases, more astronauts fly, and space tourism sees growth, a shift in perception might be needed. Brian Greene, a physicist, mathematician, and author of books like “The Elegant Universe,” said that change should come in the form of a focus on not just the fiery launch, but the idea of exploration itself.
“The initial excitement comes from novelty,” Greene told FLORIDA TODAY. “And novelty is the very thing that dissipates when you have launches happening at regular intervals and people get used to it.”
From there, Greene said, it’s incumbent on leaders – especially those responsible for messaging – to shift from fiery exhaust plumes to discovery itself. His latest effort to push discovery comes in the form of publicly available online classes, hosted by Varsity Tutors, that focus on astrophysics and black holes.
Some of the most common and interesting questions he gets from students, he said, show there’s a hunger for discovery-fueled knowledge. Questions that focus on the nature of space and time are not only common but they also lack clear answers, even to a professional like Greene.
“The very reason for doing what we’re doing is to understand qualities of the universe better,” he said. “I think that generates excitement not from the launch itself, but rather from the exploration that the launch will allow to happen.”
“We’re not doing these launches for novelty’s sake – we’re doing it for real progress. And if people can be convinced of that real progress, they can be continually excited about these upcoming launches.”
Launch Thursday, April 22
- Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule
- Mission: Crew-2 mission to International Space Station
- Launch Time: 6:11 a.m. ET
- Launch Window: Instantaneous; must launch on time
- Landing: Drone ship