KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Elon Musk is about to make history.
For more than a decade, the billionaire space-travel innovator has been dreaming of putting men and women into space quicker, safer, and more efficiently than long established aerospace companies like Boeing, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin.
If all goes according to plan, on May 27, at a little after 4:30 p.m., Musk will make the leap from innovator to captain-of-industry when NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley blast off to the International Space Station. The two veteran space travelers will be nestled in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The mission, dubbed Demo-2, will be the first time American astronauts have launched into space from U.S. soil in almost a decade.
“I think we have a different perspective of the importance of coming to Florida launching again on an American rocket,” Behnken recently said. “Generations of people who maybe didn’t get a chance to see a space shuttle launch getting a chance again to see human spaceflight in our own backyard, if you will, is pretty exciting.”
America last launched its own astronauts into space on July 8, 2011 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Since the end of the shuttle program, NASA has had to rely on the Russian space program to get to and from the space station. The U.S. regularly buys seats on Soyuz spacecraft to the tune of some $84 million a pop.
The final shuttle mission (STS‐135) was coincidentally piloted by Hurley. Aboard Demo-2, Hurley will personally bridge the 8-year, 10 month, 9-day gap for America returning Americans to space on American spacecraft.
“We’re just excited to kind of put it through its paces when we get ready to go fly,” Hurley recently said of Crew Dragon. “This is a little bit more measured in a lot of ways because one, we’ve been to space before, but we’ve also worked very, very long time in this collaboration with SpaceX to get to the launch pad.”
America’s latest return to space for humans will debut with two very important pieces of machinery, both made by SpaceX: a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon space capsule.
The Falcon 9 is a two-stage, partially re-usable rocket powered by nine Merlin 1D+ engines that use a combination of liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene for fuel. Those nine engines produce as much thrust as twenty 747s engines. The system is so robust that according to SpaceX, two of the nine engines can fail and the rocket will still be able to push its payload into the correct orbit.
Falcon 9 rockets can haul payloads anywhere from 18,300 pounds to geo-stationary transfer orbit to 50,300 pounds in low-Earth orbit.
After releasing its cargo, Falcon 9 rockets return to Earth to be re-used for other missions cutting down significantly on costs. SpaceX has used static landing pads and drone ships to recover rockets and boosters after their missions. The company’s 50th rocket landing took place this past March.
“This is going to be a huge evolution in spaceflight,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk back in 2017 after the company launched a recovered Falcon 9 booster back into space. “It means you can fly and re-fly an orbital-class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket.”
Falcon 9 rockets are innovative, but they’re not infallible.
Out of 87 launches, there has been one partial failure on Oct. 8, 2012 when an Orbcomm-G2 satellite did not reach its correct orbit and two complete failures, one on June 28, 2015 when a Falcon 9 carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded 139 seconds into flight and on Sept. 3, 2016 when a Falcon 9 and its AMOS-6 satellite exploded during a static-fire test at Cape Canaveral.
The rocket currently has a 97.7% success rate in missions.
Sidebar Trivia: The “9” in Falcon 9 comes from the nine Merlin 1D+ engines (that was easy). But where does the “Falcon” in Falcon 9 come from? If you’re a Star Wars fan, the answer is also an easy guess.
Now to Crew Dragon.
Originally known simply as “Dragon” there are actually two variants of this space capsule. Dragon is the designation for the version that hauls cargo while Crew Dragon has a different layout and is a little cushier for human space travel. Dragon was originally designed to always haul people, but SpaceX first had to prove it could safely and reliably haul cargo to the ISS before pivoting over to putting humans onboard.
Consider it crawling before you walk before you run. Both variants will continue to fly after a successful Demo-2 mission.
The Dragon space capsule is just as innovative as the Falcon 9 rocket and also not infallible. It was the first private spacecraft to ever dock with the ISS and also the first to do it autonomously. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, it floats down with the aid of four Mark 3 parachutes and makes a splashdown in the water. Crew Dragon’s competitor, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, touches down on land when it returns from its missions.
At one time, Musk wanted to use the Dragon capsule’s eight built-in SuperDraco engines to help slow its descent and make pinpoint touchdowns on land. That concept became less and less likely as NASA and SpaceX looked for common ground in simplicity and safety. The idea was all but shelved after the first Crew Dragon to make it to space and back was destroyed on April 20, 2019 during a static fire test at Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX called it “an anomaly”. Regular folk called it an explosion.
In a nutshell, a faulty check-valve pushed propellant from the SuperDraco engines into a place it wasn’t supposed to be, causing a rupture of the propellant system. The solution: SpaceX replaced the faulty valve with a one-and-done burst disk system eliminating the possibility of a future propellant backup, but also removing the ability to control thrust on the SuperDraco engines. The SuperDracos now do just one job, serving as emergency engines in launch abort scenarios.
In March of 2019, Crew Dragon made its first successful flight to the ISS and returned safely to Earth. That flight, known as Demo-1, paved the way the upcoming May 27th Demo-2 mission.
“We have not launched American astronauts, on American rockets since the end of the space shuttle,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview with News 6 anchor Justin Warmouth in December. “We need to get back to flying humans again.”
Bridenstine added that the gap in spaceflight from American soil is a stain on the U.S. record.
Developing a successor to the shuttle, whether it be SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner, to safely transport humans to and from the space station, has been a priority for the U.S. space agency for years. Once Demo-2 is complete, SpaceX will launch the Crew-1 mission later this year carrying three American and one Japanese astronaut to the ISS.