According to foreign media, SpaceX will launch the first batch of passengers into space on the afternoon of the 27th local time, which may herald a new era of manned space flight in the United States. This will be the first launch of a manned rocket in the United States in nearly a decade, and it will also be the first time that a private company's aircraft will launch a manned rocket into space.
This historic rocket launch is also a test for SpaceX, which is an important milestone in NASA's commercial space manned program. In this experimental program, a private company will build new spacecraft for NASA to transport astronauts to and from the international space station. SpaceX's contribution to the project is a stylish, gum shaped spaceship called the crew dragon. Although the Dragon spacecraft has been tested several times before, it has not carried out manned flight.
It took SpaceX six years to get there. Last year, the company conducted a complete test flight and successfully launched the Dragon spaceship to the space station without a human being. The company also tested the capsule's emergency escape system, confirming that even if there was a problem during the launch of the Dragon spacecraft, it could send passengers to a safe place. SpaceX has also suffered some setbacks, including rocket failures and the explosion of the dragon capsule during last year's ground tests. SpaceX has solved these problems and said the failures are "gifts" to help the company build a safer spacecraft.
Now, it's time for the Dragon Ship to "carry people.". The first two passengers of the Dragon spacecraft were NASA senior astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who were assigned to the mission in 2018. After two years of training by NASA and SpaceX for the flight, they are ready to put on SpaceX's customized spacesuit and enter the spacecraft.
The following explains why this launch is so important, what it looks like, and what it means for NASA and SpaceX's future.
Getting rid of dependence on Russia and returning to the United States by manned space flight
On July 8, 2011, NASA's space shuttle made its last flight and astronauts were launched into space orbit from the mainland of the United States. Since then, all NASA astronauts and international partners have flown to the station in Russia's Soyuz capsule. This cost NASA $80 million per person for each flight, which has long been NASA's only option to send astronauts to the space station.
Artistic renderings of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft (left) and Boeing's CST-100 starplane (right)
To end its dependence on another country, Nasa decided to work with the private sector to bring manned space back to the United States. Through the commercial manned space program, NASA and two companies signed a contract: SpaceX and Boeing to develop their own vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to the space station and back to earth. NASA paid SpaceX $3.14 billion to develop and launch the Dragon spacecraft, while Boeing received $4.8 billion to develop and launch the CST-100 starliner.
Over the years, there has been fierce competition between the two companies. Both companies have experienced numerous technical delays and setbacks, but in the end, SpaceX was at the top. If all goes well, SpaceX will be the first private enterprise ever to put humans into orbit.
Astronauts take Tesla Model x to the launch site
SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle will be launched at the Kennedy Space Center launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch site is called 39A. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 took off from 39A to complete the first human mission to the moon. SpaceX began leasing the site from NASA in 2014, and has revamped it for Falcon 9 and heavy Falcon rocket launches.
Hurley (right) and Behnken (left) stand next to Tesla and the car will take them to the launch pad. Photograph: Bill Ingalls / NASA
Put on SpaceX's custom spacesuit, astronauts Behnken and Hurley will go to the launch pad around 1pm EST that day. All of this is mask's personal label: two astronauts will ride in a white Tesla Model x, decorated with NASA's logo, to make the car look cooler. After arriving at the launch pad, the two will take an elevator to the top of the Falcon 9 rocket, and then cross the suspended corridor known as the "crew access arm" to the entrance of the Dragon spacecraft.
Behnken and Hurley will enter the capsule and close the doors, which will start fueling the rocket. This part of the process has caused considerable controversy in the aerospace industry. In the past, when the space shuttle was still in use, it would add fuel before the astronauts boarded, because this step may be risky. However, SpaceX chose to refuel about half an hour before launch, after astronauts had entered. Because the company uses extremely cold propellants and injects them before take-off, it limits the overheating and boiling of propellants and improves rocket performance.
The access arm to the Dragon ship. Image source: SpaceX
After nearly two years of debate, when SpaceX fully proved its safety, NASA approved SpaceX to inject rocket fuel after astronauts entered the capsule.
Once all the propellant is injected into the rocket, it will be launched soon. SpaceX is scheduled to launch at 4:33 p.m. et. The company must launch at that exact time, or it will be forced to postpone the launch to a backup date, Saturday, May 30.
The Dragon spaceship has its own toilet, which will automatically dock with the space station
If all goes according to plan, the two astronauts will come on a fast trip to space. The Falcon 9 rocket will release the Dragon into low earth orbit about 12 minutes after take-off. The rocket will then return to earth and land on an unmanned spacecraft in the Atlantic Ocean.
In the next 19 hours, the astronauts will orbit the earth. During this period, the Dragon spacecraft will speed up slightly by turning on the engine regularly to catch up with the international space station. In the capsule, Behnken and Hurley can sleep, and if they are in a hurry, they can use the toilet in the capsule.
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft approached the international space station during its first test flight in 2019. Image source: NASA
There are very few things the Dragon spacecraft needs astronauts to do in flight, but for testing, Hurley and Behnken will make some manual flights before arriving at the space station. "This is obviously to make sure that the crew have a better understanding of the Dragon ship, in case that in the future, the aircraft must be manually piloted in some cases." Hurley said at a press conference. According to the plan, Hurley will carry out manual control after the Dragon spacecraft reaches orbit and when it approaches the space station.
But in fact, this is also the time when the autonomous docking system of the Dragon spaceship shines brilliantly. This is what SpaceX's previous cargo dragon spacecraft lacked in delivering materials to the international space station. In the cargo mission, astronauts on the space station need to use mechanical arms to grasp the upcoming dragon spaceship and pull it closer to the international space station. Now, with the upgraded dragon ship, we don't need human help. Once Hurley has completed the flight, the automatic docking system of the Dragon spacecraft will start after approaching the space station. Through a series of sensors and cameras, the capsule will automatically fly to the international space station and connect to an open docking port.
If the launch goes ahead as planned, the connection to the space station will take place at 11.29 a.m. Thursday, May 28, et.
Return to earth
When the dragon's hatch opens, Behnken and Hurley will meet NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Russian astronauts Anatoly ivanishin and Ivan vanner on the international space station. Hurley said Cassidy recently sent them an email about their upcoming reunion in space. "He said he was looking forward to seeing our ugly faces on the space station," Hurley recalled.
NASA had planned to keep astronauts on the space station for only a few weeks. However, due to the extension of commercial space manned program and the extension of R & D time of SpaceX and Boeing's manned aircraft, the original plan has changed. It was expected that the first manned flights would take place in 2017, and regular flights would be available by 2020. NASA has bought some seats for Russian spacecraft, which are running out of seats. Now Cassidy's mission is to operate the American led space station.
About six months ago, Nasa decided to extend Behnken and Hurley's stay in space to allow more astronauts on the international space station. Now it seems that they are likely to stay in space for several months. Although NASA has not yet decided when the astronauts will return, due to the limitation of solar panels, the Dragon spacecraft can only stay in space for about four months. The thin atmosphere in space will degrade the performance of solar panels over time, limiting the life of spacecraft in orbit.
Four parachutes of the Dragon spacecraft. During the flight test in 2019, the aircraft fell into the ocean. Photo source: NASA
NASA said it would decide on a return date after astronauts enter space. As an additional insurance measure, NASA recently bought another seat in the Russian Soyuz flight this fall, just in case.
When it's time, Behnken and Hurley will return to the Dragon ship, close the hatch and leave the station. They will be able to distance themselves from the international space station and then cross the earth's atmosphere. The four parachutes of the Dragon spacecraft will be opened to allow the spacecraft to slowly fall down, and the capsule will finally land safely in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
Weather becomes uncertain, launch may be delayed
SpaceX spent many years testing and checking to make sure the launch was safe. But the launch was also a test, and fear of failure haunted many people. In the event of an accident, the built-in emergency escape system will provide additional protection for astronauts.
The outer wall of the Dragon ship is embedded with a micro thruster called the superdraco engine. These thrusters are used in the flight process to provide power for the escape system of the Dragon spacecraft in case of catastrophic failure. The superdraco engine can lift the Dragon spacecraft up and away from the failed rocket. Once it's far enough away, the capsule's parachute can be deployed and the spacecraft will fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
This is an emergency only operation, but SpaceX claims that it can be carried out at any time during the flight to low earth orbit, which actually means NASA and SpaceX have limited launch time for this mission. The suspension of the launch may make the Dragon spacecraft land in an extremely wide area of the Atlantic Ocean. NASA needs to ensure that the capsule has good weather conditions at every possible landing place for search and rescue.
"We are actually looking at the waves. We are looking at the speed and height of the waves, because in case of emergency escape after launch, we need to make sure that they can land in a safe sea area, so that the rescue forces can come to meet them." Benji reed, director of SpaceX's manned launch mission, said at a press conference. SpaceX will consider weather conditions at more than 50 locations, from the east coast of the United States to Canada and even across the Atlantic to Northern Ireland. This means that the launch is likely to be delayed due to weather.
So far, weather conditions have been changing on the day of May 27, but today, the 45th U.S. Air Force Space wing in Florida predicts a 60 percent chance of a favorable environment for the launch.
Opening a new era of commercial manned spaceflight?
When Behnken and Hurley get back to earth and back to their families, they can start to think about making this kind of space travel normal - that's what the commercial space manned program means. SpaceX and NASA will carefully study the data collected during the test flight and use this information to determine whether the Dragon spacecraft can regularly travel to and from the international space station.
SpaceX's next fully operational dragon spacecraft mission will take place in a few months. There will be four astronauts on board. NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The flight is expected to take place in the early autumn of this year, which will consolidate a new era in which commercial companies will send humans to the space station.