Launch day

In about two hours, if the weather allows, SpaceX will be launching two astronauts in a Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS for the first time. This is a big deal.

Nine years ago, I watched the last shuttle launch with my kids. The oldest was three years old, and the other was one, so they have no recollection of this. Since then, they have grown to awareness in a world in which the US is incapable of launching its own astronauts into space.

This launch means that will now change. But this launch goes beyond just returning human-launch capability to US soil. That’s cool and all, but focusing on it is a bit short-sighted. This launch marks a turning point in humankind’s relation to space.

SpaceX, with its rapid development of Cargo Dragon, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy, has managed to decrease the cost of getting things to space by orders of magnitude. When it is possible to launch lots of stuff cheaply, we’ll launch lots of stuff. Now, with Crew Dragon, SpaceX is going to do that for humans. And when it becomes possible to launch lots of humans cheaply, we’ll launch lots of humans.

Lots of humans and lots of stuff in space means, well, it could mean anything. But mostly, it’s a critical step toward becoming a space-faring civilization. And that’s why this is a big deal.

Keep your eyes up (SpaceX Demo-2)

A year and a couple months ago, I wrote  about the SpaceX Demo-1 mission and why it was so important. That mission successfully sent an uncrewed Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS and returned it to Earth. Then, a little over a month later, a Crew Dragon exploded unexpectedly during a static fire test of its abort thrusters. This delayed a crewed mission, while SpaceX investigated the cause and made corresponding changes to the capsule. As is often and quite accurately said: space is hard.

But the wait is over. Wednesday afternoon (May 27, 2020), at 4:33 EDT, SpaceX will launch Demo-2 to the ISS. Aboard that capsule will be two astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, the first launched from US soil since the final shuttle launch (STS-135) in 2011.

Keep your eyes up. Times are weird right now, but we will get through this pandemic. And when we come out the other side, we will be well on the way to becoming the space-faring civilization that we are destined to be. Wednesday’s launch is a big step on the path. I urge you to watch the launch, if for no other reason than as a reminder that history is bigger than the mess we’re in right now.

Image: SpaceX

The perennial question: Moon or Mars?

We don’t need to go to the Moon in order to go to Mars. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to the Moon. It’s just not a prerequisite.

I love this quote from John Grunsfeld, when asked about the radiation risk of a Mars trip: “How does that compare to the risk of blowing up on the launchpad or on ascent; getting hit by a meteor, asteroid, debris, some kind of space junk on the way there; burning up in the Mars atmosphere; burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere on the way back; or missing the Earth? You add up all those risks, and the [risk of radiation exposure] is kind of just another one.”

Crew Dragon abort test tomorrow

SpaceX will conduct an inflight abort test of Crew Dragon tomorrow morning. As the Falcon 9 reaches max-Q, it will shut off its engines to simulate a worst case failure. This should trigger the Crew Dragon to separate from the rocket and fire its own Super Draco engines to get away from the failing rocket. Once clear, Crew Dragon will pop its parachutes and land gently in the Atlantic. This should be quite a show and is the last major milestone before an actual crewed launch.

ISS as Mars transit testbed

Transit to Mars using current technology takes about six months. How might a crew react to that length of time in close quarters, moving ever farther from Earth? The ISS could provide a testbed and training facility for such a trip.

Apollo pooping

This might be the most dedicated space journalism I’ve ever encountered. I want to say “Bravo!”, but that seems weird.