10 questions about the mission

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is about to launch its spacecraft – the Crew Dragon – with astronauts on board for the first time. Here, we answer some common questions about the mission.

Why is a private company launching NASA astronauts?

NASA plans to deliver crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) in the early 2000s. After the Columbia space shuttle disbanded during its return to Earth in 2003, the space agency focused on development of a replacement spaceship that could travel to the moon. Involving private companies in the transfer of crew and goods to the ISS was a necessary step in order to afford that program. In 2014, the entrepreneur Elon Musk SpaceX and the aerospace giant Boeing were announced as winners of a NASA contract for crew transportation services. SpaceX first launches its spacecraft; the Crew Dragon spacecraft will take off Wednesday on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

What is SpaceX?

SpaceX is an American company that provides commercial and government launch services on its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The entrepreneur Elon Musk founded the company in 2002, with the aim of reducing space transportation costs, allowing the colonization of Mars. SpaceX was the first private company to routinely bring rocket stages back to Earth under propulsive power, so that they could re-fly instead of being discarded. He has conducted regular freight flights to the ISS and will now aim to begin the launch of astronauts. Musk’s company is also developing a larger spacecraft to transport humans – called Starship – which could begin the process of setting up Mars.

Who is Elon Musk?

Born in South Africa, Elon Musk made more than $ 160 million from the sale of the PayPal online payment service to eBay. His desire to see humanity become a true space civilization was a driving factor behind the founding of SpaceX. But he has also been involved in the founding of a variety of other companies such as the electric carmaker Tesla. He also came up with a project called Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system that uses pods that travel through a tube system. His colorful personality and lifestyle made him the inspiration for Robert Dark’s interpretation of the Marvel comic book character Tony Stark. Musk is no stranger to controversy: his tweets triggered lawsuits and forced him to be expelled as president of Tesla (although he remained as CEO).

Why is launching so important?

Since the shuttle’s withdrawal in 2011, NASA has paid tens of millions of dollars to Russia to launch its astronauts on the Soyuz spacecraft. The launch of Crew Dragon from Florida marks the first launch of humans from American soil in nine years. As such, it is seen as crucial for restoring American prestige in human space flight. This will also be the first time that a private company has launched astronauts into orbit.

What is the crew dragon?

The dragon of the crew is the spaceship that will transport the astronauts to the ISS on Wednesday. It is an elegant evolution of the Dragon spacecraft that was built to transport cargo to the outpost in orbit. The crew dragon is designed to carry a maximum of seven passengers, but NASA flights will carry four, with the rest of the space occupied by supplies. It is equipped with thrusters that allow it to maneuver in space and hook – or attach – to the space station under autonomous control. Unlike previous spacecraft designed for humans, the crew cabin is equipped with touchscreen controls instead of physical buttons.

Who are the astronauts flying in space?

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are NASA astronauts. They were selected in 2000 and each one flew into space twice on the space shuttle. They are among the most experienced members of NASA’s astronaut corps and both trained as test pilots – which was instrumental in testing the new spacecraft. Hurley spent a total of 28 days and 11 hours in space, while Behnken accumulated a total of 29 days and 12 hours, including 37 hours of walking in space. Both men are also married to astronauts.

Bob Behnken (L) and Doug Hurley arrived in Florida on May 20 to prepare for the launch
Bob Behnken (L) and Doug Hurley arrived in Florida on May 20 to prepare for the launch

What should astronauts do?

Spacecraft designed to transport astronauts must go through a process that ensures they can operate safely. This launch is essentially the final step in the validation process. Once in orbit, Behnken and Hurley will test the Crew Dragon’s environmental control system, displays and controls and thrusters. They will monitor the autonomous docking system as they approach the space station and become ISS crew members. At the outpost in orbit, they will continue to test the Crew Dragon along with other space station related activities. When it is time to return to Earth, the Crew Dragon will parachute into the Atlantic Ocean. The capsule and crew will then be recovered from a ship called Go Navigator.

Mission profile
Mission profile

What if something goes wrong during the launch?

The Crew Dragon has a built-in cut-off system, designed to save his crew’s life in an emergency. If a problem occurs during take-off, such as a rocket engine crash, the crew dragon shoots the machines to push the vehicle and its occupants free of the rocket. The capsule will therefore parachute safely. SpaceX successfully conducted an in-flight cut-off test on January 19, 2020.

And those spacesuits?

The flight suits that Behnken and Hurley will wear in the capsule look very different from the previous models. In stark contrast to the bulky pumpkin seeds and the familiar round helmets of the space shuttle era, SpaceX suits are thin, white numbers, in one piece with elegant 3D printed helmets. Each one is tailor-made for the astronaut. If they look like something from a science fiction movie, it’s probably because their look was conceived by Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez, who worked on the Batman, X-Men and Thor films. But seeds must also be practical; they are designed to keep the crew alive in the event of depressurization of the cabin, where air is lost from inside the spacecraft.

What happens next?

If Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission is successful, SpaceX will proceed with the six “operational” missions to the ISS which must fly on the $ 2.6 billion contract with NASA. Boeing has a similar agreement, worth $ 4.2 billion, to transport the crew to the space station using its CST-100 Starliner vehicle.

Follow Paul on Twitter.

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