Tag: SpaceX

Back to the Future

Back to the Future

It had been 3,249 days – nearly nine years – since Americans went to space aboard an American launch vehicle and from American soil, when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, bearing the Crew Dragon capsule with two astronauts aboard, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30. The launch broke a hiatus that existed since the last U.S. manned launch, that of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011, and during which only Russian vehicles, launched from the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, brought Americans to space.

The occasion was so momentous I decided I needed to be there, near the launch site, to see America’s return to manned spaceflight. For several years, in the 1980s, I covered the space program as a journalist and saw many launches, manned and unmanned, from KSC and adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In the intervening 35 years my interest in space and America’s place in it drifted, as it did for much of the country. All that changed Saturday.

Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken
Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken during a dress rehearsal at Kennedy Space Center on May 23. Photo by NASA/Kim Shiflett.

As impressive as the launch was, the tens of thousands of people who had come from all over the state of Florida, from all over the country, and even from abroad, to see the launch, was incredibly gratifying. To me, that was a big part of the story Saturday, just as it was three days earlier when similar crowds turned out, only to suffer disappointment when weather caused the launch to be scrubbed about 15 minutes before the planned liftoff.

Despite nine years during which no manned launches originated on American soil, people clearly are still interested in space exploration, and that interest is now passing to new generations of young people and children, generations which are likely to see people again set foot on the moon, and then going on to other planets, maybe even doing those things themselves.

Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from shore of Indian River in Titusville, Fla., Saturday. Photo by the author.

As I’ve said before, to me perhaps the biggest tragedy of the cut-backs to the space program that happened after the last moon voyage occurred in the 1970s was that there were generations, billions of people, billions of children who were born and lived on this planet, but who were not alive as humans walked on the moon. All they could do was what people did for eons before American astronauts set foot on our nearest natural satellite, which was look toward the heavens, toward the moon, toward the planets and stars, and wonder what it would be like to go there, to dream about doing so. And now that dream once more is coming close to becoming a reality.

It could be as early as 2024 when we go back to the moon. And not many years after that when we send a manned mission to Mars, departing from the moon, which would serve as a stepping stone to reduce the cost and difficulty of breaking free from earth’s gravity.

Saturday’s launch marked another first: It was the first time that a launch vehicle and capsule built by a private company, SpaceX, carried astronauts into orbit. This is the new direction of spaceflight, a partnership between NASA and private enterprise, not just for private contractors to assemble parts and systems designed by NASA, but to design, build, and operate complete launch systems. Hot on SpaceX’s contrail is another private space venture, United Space Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two aerospace giants, which also is hoping to carry astronauts into orbit.

Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from shore of Indian River in Titusville, Fla., Saturday. Apollo and Shuttle-era Vehicle Assembly Building visible at right. Photo by the author.

We clearly have come a long way since the early days of the space program. Tuesday marked 55 years since, on June 3, 1965, astronaut Ed White made the first American spacewalk, remaining outside the Gemini 4 capsule, which he shared with Command Pilot James McDivitt, for 23 minutes. More recently, we have come up from what was probably the absolute nadir for the country’s space program when, 10 years ago, then-NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with the “perhaps foremost” task for the agency: “ . . . to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit over the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral. Photo by the author.

There was no thought of that Saturday as the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule rose from Pad 39A into the blue Florida sky, carrying Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS), 263 statute miles above the earth’s surface. Even as riots and violence was tearing apart cities across the country, and the nation was still reeling under months of lock-downs occasioned by an invading virus, the feeling of pride and happiness among those gathered along the shores of the Indian River or on the beaches and bridges and in the parks of Brevard County – people of all races, genders, nationalities, and ages – was evident.

Perhaps reflective of the feeling of those present would be the words of SpaceX founder and its self-styled Chief Technology Officer, Elon Musk. Himself born in South Africa and a citizen of three countries, including this one, Musk has described the U.S. as “[inarguably] the greatest country that has ever existed on Earth,” calling it “the greatest force for good of any country that’s ever been.” I think few present Saturday would have argued with those words.

Second Lady Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump
From left to right, Second Lady Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, and President Donald Trump, watch as Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon lifts off from Kenneday Space Center on Saturday. To the right out of the image is First Lady Melania Trump. The last time a president came to KSC to witness a launch was in October 1998 when President Bill Clinton came to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.

The Ride Up and Docking

The next crucial part of the mission came Sunday morning, 19 hours after launch, when the Crew Dragon capsule docked with the ISS. The docking went flawlessly, too, almost eerily smoothly, and it was enthralling watching it unfold on C-Span back in the confines of my living room. One wishes that terrestrial television transmission of sports and other events went as smoothly as the video being beamed down from space.

Behnken and Hurley, both Air Force test pilots, even got to pilot the capsule manually for awhile as they sped around the earth at 17,500 MPH in pursuit of the ISS, catching up with it at 10:16 a.m. EDT Sunday. The only apparent mishap was when Behnken bumped his head on the hatchway, causing some bleeding he mopped up with a handkerchief, as the astronauts came across from the Crew Dragon into the vestibule of the space station.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket heads to orbit over the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral. Photo by the author.

Welcoming Hurley and Behnken aboard the ISS were American astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Antoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Vagner on Saturday had captured a rare image of the launch of the Falcon 9 as the ISS passed east of Cape Canaveral.

Cassidy later told reporters that the Crew Dragon emitted a new car smell.

“In fact, there was a little bit of space smell in the vestibule, Cassidy said. “When we got that hatch open, you could tell it was a brand new vehicle, with smiley faces on the other side, [a] smiley face on mine — just as if you had bought a new car, the same kind of reaction. Wonderful to see my friends and wonderful to see a brand new vehicle.”

Comparing the ride up with his previous ascent on the Space Shuttle, Behnken said the liftoff was smoother, largely due to the Shuttle’s twin and powerful solid rocket boosters, though other parts of the ascent were rougher.

“But Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit, and we were definitely driving or riding a dragon all the way up,” he said. “It was not quite the same ride, the smooth ride, as the Space Shuttle was up to MECO [main engine cutoff] — a little bit less g’s but a little bit more alive is probably the best way I would describe it.”

The next manned SpaceX launch is projected to be around Aug. 30. But even given the successes of the SpaceX launch system, there will be at least one more American astronaut, Kate Rubins, to be launched on a Russian rocket in October. The U.S. pays the Russians $90 million per seat for those launches, but that probably will soon turn around and the Russians will begin paying the U.S. to launch their cosmonauts on our vehicles, at a more economical cost of $55 million per seat. A big part of the cost saving results from SpaceX’s use of recoverable and refurbishable first-stage boosters, unlike the Russians’ non-recoverable launch system.

After Saturday’s successful launch, Musk couldn’t help but get in a dig at the Russians during the post-launch news conference. In a jab at Russian space agency Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin who, in 2014, had said the U.S. might as well “deliver its astronauts to the ISS by using a trampoline,” Musk, sitting in a panel chaired by NASA Administrator James Bridenstine, quipped, “The trampoline is working.” Musk quickly added, “It’s an inside joke,” as he and Bridenstine both laughed.

While Rogozin’s spokesman was less than gracious, saying what happened Saturday should have happened a long time ago, Rogozin himself took Musk’s comment in stride.

Tweeted the Russian space chief to his American counterpart, “Please convey my sincere greetings to @elonmusk (I loved his joke) and @SpaceX team. Looking forward to further cooperation!”

A rivalry that has gone on for more than six decades isn’t likely to abate any time soon, cooperation aboard the ISS or not. For now, Americans have a lot to be proud about, and they showed it at the Cape on Saturday.

Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Crowds watch SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from shore of Indian River in Titusville, Fla., Saturday. Photo by the author.

BONUS: Polaroid images from the moon contributed by reader Gary Green. See them here.

Featured Image: SpaceX Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center Saturday. Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, it confirmed the company’s commitment to establishing an ever-larger presence in space. And SpaceX is doing so as a private enterprise, a leader in an industry only vaguely foreseen just a few decades ago, at the time I was a science writer covering the nation’s space program on a daily basis.

As it lifted off, the Falcon Heavy became the world’s currently most powerful launch vehicle, capable of boosting 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into low earth orbit (LEO). The imagery of the giant rocket rising into the sky from the same pad where the moon rockets of the Apollo program took a dozen humans to the surface of the moon wasn’t lost on the tens of thousands of onlookers at Cape Canaveral. Nor was it lost on SpaceX founder and chief Elon Musk, who sent his personal red Tesla roadster – a product of another of his companies – with a mannequin at the wheel that Musk named Starman – after the David Bowie song – into deep space orbit around the sun.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy seemed designed to give birth to a renewed vision of space exploration, a vision that had gone off the rails from the fading days of the Space Shuttle program and which reached its nadir in June 2010. That’s when then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that the space agency’s primary mission was outreach to the Muslim world. Bolden said he had been charged with three missions by President Obama, this being the foremost one, and none of which had anything to do with space exploration. While the White House later insisted Bolden misspoke and that such outreach was not part of NASA’s mission, all indications were that there was little commitment to setting a new course for America’s drifting space program.

It was a different vision on Aug. 30, 1983, nearly 35 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger left that same Pad 39A at 2:32 in the morning. The mission, officially named STS-8, just the eighth Space Shuttle mission, was the first night launch of the Shuttle. It also carried the first American black astronaut to fly in space, Guion “Guy” Bluford. But the element that often is omitted from accounts of that mission was the fact that its launch nearly was scrubbed due to the weather.

The night of Aug. 29-30 at Kennedy Space Center was marked with thunderstorms. Applying normal parameters, the launch almost certainly would have been postponed given the danger posed by a lightning strike on the vehicle or the conductive contrails of its solid rocket boosters. As I sat at my desk in the KSC Press Center that night, I had already completed the draft of my story stating that the launch had been scrubbed due to weather. I was about to file my story when a hole opened in the clouds over Pad 39A, the launch window was extended and the countdown resumed, and Challenger raced into space through that hole, lighting up the Cape like it was day and illuminating the night sky from Havana to Hatteras.

There was talk at that time, in the early years of the Shuttle program, whether the vehicle would ever be run like an airline, keeping to a schedule of frequent launches and dropping costs. I saw the willingness of flight controllers to bend the rules and launch through the hole in the clouds that stormy August night as a major step in that direction, and I said as much in the piece I finally filed. In some ways, my prediction was prescient, and Tuesday’s launch of the Falcon Heavy was the logical extension of what I saw through that hole in the nighttime clouds.

There were other things that I didn’t see that night, though. I failed to make allowance for things like political pressure, human miscalculation, and the arrogance of managers not willing to admit when they are wrong. In some cases – like launching Challenger in sub-freezing temperatures that clearly exceeded launch parameters on Jan. 28. 1986, or failing to heed the warnings of flight engineers regarding penetration of Columbia’s heat-protective tiles prior to the orbiter’s reentry on Feb. 1, 2003 – dead wrong.

The Challenger and Columbia disasters, like the fatal Apollo 1 test module fire of Jan. 27, 1967, remind us that space exploration is not without its risks, nor without its losses, including and especially human losses. At least until this point, space travel is not analogous to contemporary airline flight. I accuse myself of missing that key point in my STS-8 prognostication, but not of missing the point of where things were headed. And now, with private space enterprises, like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, and others developing new vehicles, taking over more of the functions formerly unique to NASA, and putting private capital at risk, a new chapter is being written in America’s venture into space.

Make no mistake. America still has a long way to go before it reestablishes its place in space. It has always struck me as tragically sad that there are people alive on earth today who were born after the time when men walked on the moon. A dream humans held for thousands of years had come and gone, and now we are back looking into the heavens and dreaming of a return to the moon and beyond. And as impressive as Tuesday’s launch was, to put things in perspective, in 2018 the Falcon Heavy generated just half the lift of NASA’s Saturn V lunar rocket, first launched from the same Pad 39A on Nov, 7, 1967, half a century earlier. The Saturn V could lift 120 metric tons to LEO, a launch capability that has yet to be matched. So powerful was the Saturn V that its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 10 miles away.

But the Falcon Heavy is not the end of SpaceX’s design train, and the company’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR – the mundane name is actually Musk’s play on words, with the “F” a stand-in for another less polite word – will be a monster affair capable of lifting 136 metric tons to LEO. Musk sees the BFR as the rocket that will take colonists to Mars, or carry up to 100 paying passengers into space. Meanwhile, the company has been flying unmanned missions for years, and it expects to bring astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its smaller Falcon 9 rocket paired with its Dragon space capsule later this year.

The TSA isn’t going to be setting up security checkpoints at KSC any time soon, but an era when space travel becomes accessible to more and more people is increasingly easy to envisage, and in large part it’s due to the vision and perseverance of private space entrepreneurs. It’s an era that, while it will come a bit later than I saw at the time, there was a small glimpse of through a hole in the clouds one stormy night in 1983.


Photo of STS-8 launch by NASA