ARTICLE – When I was a kid, I loved space. I couldn’t get enough of NASA and the Apollo program. I was nine years old when Apollo 11 launched, and like most of the country, I was glued to the TV, fascinated by America’s space program. In fact, they told me I should become an astronaut because I was just taking up space in school, but I digress…
Ever since the end of the shuttle missions, America hasn’t really had much of a space program. We have relied on the Russian space program to launch astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). But that’s all about to change.
In this past month, NASA and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company, successfully launched a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s space coast, to the ISS. The rocket was topped with SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule, designed to carry American astronauts into space. The capsule contained a human analog named Ripley – think MythBusters’ Buster – a heavily sensor-laden manikin, to measure forces and to help determine how humans would handle the flight.
This flight also introduced new tech to the program. Usually, when a ship docks with the ISS, the crew on the ISS use the ISS’s robotic arm to help the ship dock. On this flight, the Crew Dragon capsule docked fully autonomously, a first in ISS history.
The capsule returned home after its five-day mission, successfully splashing down in the Atlantic. Now that the capsule, and Ripley, are home, the data will be analyzed. Another launch is planned with a designed abort, to test astronaut’s ability to survive in the event a flight has to be abandoned after the rocket has launched. Assuming it all looks good, we could see US astronauts, launching from a US launch site on a US built rocket for the first time in years.
In February 2018, a month after moving to Florida, I made the drive about 90 minute east to Titusville, just across the water from NASA’s famed launchpad 39A. I got to watch the NASA/SpaceX launch of the Falcon Heavy, essentially three Falcon 9s duct taped together. (OK, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the gist…)
On top of that was a capsule containing Musk’s own Tesla Model S roadster, with another dummy, dubbed Starman, belted in for the ride. The Falcon Heavy is designed to carry people and cargo, into space, potentially to Mars.
The bottom line here is that it is a very exciting time for the US space program – the most exciting time since the beginning of the space shuttle program. It would be great to get back to the heyday of space exploration when the entire country had space fever and we all looked to the skies with awe and excitement.
To learn more, check out NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.