Elon Musk’s SpaceX is transporting people to the International Space Station (ISS) using the Crew Dragon vehicle. But why does a private company transport astronauts to space and back to NASA?
To understand the origins of the historic first ISS mission with the dragon of the crew, we have to go back almost 20 years to a tragic accident.
On February 1
The loss of Columbia and its crew was the trigger for a dramatic change of course towards the American human spaceflight program.
On January 14, 2004, President George W Bush announced that the space shuttle would be withdrawn after the completion of the International Space Station (ISS). In its place, America would build a new vehicle capable of bringing astronauts back to the moon.
The following year, then NASA chief Mike Griffin announced that completing the ISS would, for the first time, open up commercial opportunities for the normal transportation of goods and astronauts in low Earth orbit.
This, according to Griffin, was needed to free up enough funds to get a return to the moon. NASA has set up a commercial crew and cargo program office (C3PO) to oversee the effort.
At the time, SpaceX, the company founded by South African entrepreneur Elon Musk, was only a few years old. Musk had great ambitions to bring down the cost of spaceflight by reusing space hardware and placing humans on Mars.
“SpaceX was founded to make life multi-planetary,” says Jessica Jensen, hardware and operations director of the Starship mission at SpaceX.
But he adds: “We have been a very small company for several years. So we had to look for opportunities – as we move from a small company to actually putting people into orbit. When NASA came out with the need to fly goods to and from the International Space Station, we jumped on that. “
SpaceX was selected for evaluation under NASA’s cargo program in 2006. But in 2008 SpaceX and Tesla, the electric car maker that Musk had invested in, were running out of liquidity. Musk was faced with an impossible choice: “I could either divide the funds I had between the two companies, or concentrate them on one company – with some death for the other,” he told Business Insider in 2013.
“In the end I decided to divide what I had and try to keep both companies alive. But that could have been a terrible decision that could have killed both companies.”
Fortunately, on December 23, 2008, NASA awarded SpaceX a $ 1.6 billion contract for the transportation of goods and supplies to the ISS. Describing his reaction, Musk said, “I couldn’t even keep calm, I was like: ‘I love you guys’.”
The company’s Dragon 1 capsule could carry goods and supplies, but not humans. However, it represented a milestone for the company.
In November 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. His administration initiated a review of the human spaceflight program, which led to the cancellation of his predecessor’s plan to return to the Moon (known as the Constellation).
However, the Obama administration has favored the continued commercialization of space by supporting the development of vehicles for the private crew. But it would take some time and, after the space shuttle was withdrawn, NASA had to bridge the gap by paying tens of millions of dollars per seat to Russia to fly its ISS astronauts on the Soyuz vehicle, which departs from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. .
Congress was initially skeptical about the commercial crew program and did not initially provide sufficient funds. But Charles Bolden, the former astronaut who took over from Griffin as NASA chief under Obama, persisted and eventually got the support he needed.
Since their initial $ 50 million investment in the program in 2010, the space agency has cut two competing companies down to two, SpaceX and Boeing, in 2014.
Since then, they have perfected and tested their spacecraft designs.
In March 2019, SpaceX performed a triumphant launch of Crew Dragon without astronauts. Using automated procedures, the capsule successfully approached and anchored to the space station.
He was carrying a mannequin called Ripley – after Ellen Ripley, the protagonist in the Alien films – had equipped himself with sensors to measure the G forces experienced during the flight, in particular the launch and return phases.
Despite this success, and others along the way, it has not always been easy to navigate for SpaceX. In 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket burst on the launch pad. And in April 2019, a Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a so-called static fire test on the ground. Neither was injured in either case.
The spacecraft was also having problems with the parachute system designed to safely bring it back to Earth.
These mishaps, along with previous funding gaps for the commercial crew program, had introduced delays in an original timeline that would have seen SpaceX launch the crew on the ISS in October 2016.
Frustrated by the delays and the time SpaceX was taking on his Starship project to build a super heavy launch vehicle, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted:
Bridenstine sent the tweet the night before a major starship media event Musk was scheduled to speak to.
The next day, Musk excavated the agency’s timing. When asked about CNN’s tweet, Musk replied: “Did he (Bridenstine) say Commercial Crew or SLS?”
The founder of SpaceX was referring to NASA’s Space Launch System rocket – designed to launch humans to the Moon – which was also hit by delays and cost overloads.
Musk’s company was not alone in facing the challenges, however. A storm anomaly prevented the Boeing spacecraft – the CST-100 Starliner – from docking with the space station during an unmanned test flight last year.
However, a successful flight test of the Crew Dragon launch discontinuation system in January 2020 helped pave the way for the historic first flight with astronauts from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on May 30.
In the post-launch press conference, both Bridenstine and Musk had more conciliatory tones, in contrast to the tensions on the Starship project.
“If you had told me (eight months earlier when he sent the tweet) that we would be here today, I don’t know I would have believed it,” said Bridenstine.
“Since that day, Elon Musk and SpaceX have delivered everything that NASA has asked them to deliver – and at a speed that we never imagined.”
The NASA chief also congratulated SpaceX on his safety culture. Musk replied, “NASA has made us much better than we would have been otherwise – and of course, we couldn’t even start without NASA.”
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