Science & Technology

The dragon that ventured into space

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon marks the beginning of the commercial era in space flight.

Since mankind first left its footprint on the lunar dust in 1969, there have been a tremendous number of achievements throughout humankind’s pursuit to truly find  “what is out there”. However, those achievements are no longer within the domain of national organizations. SpaceX is making major developments in space travel as a commercial endeavor.

Their goals of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the possibility making it to Mars come closer to fruition, day by day. NASA, in partnership with SpaceX, have now set their sights on carrying out successful commercial flights to the International Space Station (ISS),  and eventually beyond. This is why the latest craft, the Crew Dragon, was created. Also known as the Dragon 2, it is a reusable spacecraft manufactured by SpaceX and contracted by NASA to carry out crewed flights to the ISS.

Certain features have been developed in order to keep the crew under the safest conditions possible, such as heat shields to protect the spacecraft during re-entry, a power launch escape system for quick detachment from the rocket, the ability to autonomously dock upon the ISS with a backup manual control system, and touch screen controls. The Dragon can operate autonomously without a pilot. Overall, the vessel is not only designed to support human passengers, but it is also meant to give the crew the maximum comfort and experience.

In order to prepare for its first crewed flight to the ISS in July,  a non-piloted demo flight took place in March, which was a huge success “I can’t believe how well the whole mission has gone,” Benjamin Reed said. “Everything happened just perfectly … almost down to the second.”. In the early hours of March 2nd, the Crew Dragon capsule launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, with the only passenger being Ripley, SpaceX’s sensor-packed dummy.

Its launch displayed the United State’s intent to resume programs meant to carry American astronauts into space for the first time in eight years. The launch took place on the same pad the Apollo shuttle launched from.

It was an historic moment for both NASA and SpaceX. In a post-launch press conference, Jim Bridenstein explained, “I think another big milestone here is the idea that we are not, as an agency, as NASA, we are not purchasing, owning and operating our own rockets at this point” and went further to say “we are looking to the future where we can be a customer; one customer out of many customers in a very robust market place.” Bridenstein’s statements underline the new era of commercial space flight that SpaceX is leading.

The vessel docked successfully at the ISS on the scheduled date.  After the spacecraft docked, astronauts already inhabiting the ISS opened the hatch connecting the space station with the spacecraft, and unloaded the extra hardware and supplies delivered by the craft, while leaving on board the dead weight used to simulate crew and cargo along with a plush stuffed earth to indicate when the capsule has reached micro gravity.

The Crew Dragon was docked at the ISS for 5 days and returned to Earth on schedule on March 8th.

The next step is transporting real life astronauts to the ISS on the Crew Dragon is set to happen in July. However, before this launch it will require some new installations. For the mission, the spacecraft did not carry a full-scale life support system, which could consist of a supply of air, water and food. Engineers will also outfit the cockpit with a display and interface. Testing and troubleshooting is ongoing, said Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX. Mark Geyer said, “We’re going to launch when we’re ready, and it could be a bit, but none of those are insurmountable.”

But Musk’s plans don’t end with missions to the Space Station. He has also expressed his intent to establish a permanently manned lunar base and voyage farther yet to Mars.

The creation and launch of the Crew Dragon has changed the industry of space travel. For the first time in American history, a commercial business, SpaceX was successfully able to build a spacecraft to be launched and autonomously dock at the ISS. Before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which was created to stimulate development of privately operated crew vehicles, NASA was the only organization responsible for improving space travel. Now, SpaceX aspires to provide public commercial space flight among generations to come.

Image: NASA/SpaceX

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