SpaceX Launch: Highlights From NASA Astronauts’ Trip to Orbit


The United States opened a brand new period of human area journey on Saturday as a non-public firm for the primary time launched astronauts into orbit, almost a decade after the federal government retired the storied area shuttle program within the aftermath of nationwide tragedy.

Two American astronauts lifted off at three:22 p.m. from a well-known setting, the identical Florida launchpad that after served Apollo missions and the area shuttles. But the rocket and capsule that lofted them out of the environment have been a brand new sight for a lot of — constructed and operated not by NASA however SpaceX, the corporate based by the billionaire Elon Musk to pursue his dream of sending colonists to Mars.

Crowds of spectators together with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watched and cheered because the countdown ticked to zero, and the engines of a Falcon 9 rocket roared to life.

Rising slowly at first, the rocket then shot like a glossy, silvery javelin into cloudy, humid skies, three days after Florida’s climate had precluded an earlier launch try.

It was a second of triumph and maybe nostalgia for the nation, a welcome reminder of America’s international pre-eminence in science, technological innovation and personal enterprise at a time its prospects and ambitions have been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, financial uncertainty and political strife. Millions world wide watched the launch on-line and on tv, many from self-imposed quarantine of their properties.

Mr. Trump, who watched from a rooftop on the area heart together with Mr. Mike Pence and a bevy of administration officers and Republican politicians, referred to as it “an inspiration for our country” and a “beautiful sight” after the ship lifted off. “I’m so proud of the people at NASA, all the people that worked together, public and private,” he instructed reporters.

The Falcon 9 carried a Crew Dragon capsule, which was scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.

Aboard are two veterans of the astronauts corps, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas O. Hurley. Each is married to one other astronaut — Mr. Behnken to Megan McArthur and Mr. Hurley to Karen Nyberg. NASA chosen the 2 males together with a gaggle of their colleagues to be the primary prospects of area capsules constructed by non-public corporations.

It was the primary launch of NASA astronauts from the United States for the reason that retirement of the area shuttles in 2011. In the years since, NASA has paid Russia’s area program to transport its astronauts to the area station. And with this success, NASA, to its personal delight, has begun ceding this process to SpaceX and different corporations, and it opens new prospects for entrepreneurs trying to become profitable off the planet.

As a bonus for the nice begin to the mission, the booster stage efficiently landed on a floating platform within the Atlantic, now a routine feat for SpaceX.

They each have backgrounds as army take a look at pilots and have every flown twice beforehand on area shuttle missions, though that is the primary time they’ve labored collectively on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the area shuttle’s ultimate mission in 2011.

In 2015, they have been among the many astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the business area autos that the businesses have been growing. In 2018, they have been assigned to the primary SpaceX flight.

Saturday’s launch preparations started with the astronauts donning their spacesuits with the help of SpaceX technicians. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, and Jim Morhard, the deputy administrator, visited them within the suit-up room. Each saved a social distance and wore a surgical masks, and Mr. Bridenstine posed with the astronauts for a selfie.

Just after midday, the astronauts have been seen off by their households forward of their drive to the launchpad. Mr. Behnken requested his son, Theodore, “Are you going to listen to mommy and make her life easy,” referring to his spouse, Megan McArthur, a fellow astronaut. The six-year-old replied, “Let’s light this candle!”

Within the hour, that they had boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and began the hours of procedures they need to full earlier than the launch try.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence spoke at Kennedy Space Center to congratulate NASA and SpaceX after the launch.

The president began his speech by addressing the demise of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier within the week and the nationwide protests which have ensued. He referred to as for “creation, not destruction,” supporting the correct of peaceable protesters, however strongly opposing rioters and looters.

The president mentioned the launch supplied a way of satisfaction that unites Americans.

“That same spirit which powered our astronauts to the moon has also helped lift our country to ever greater heights of justice and opportunity throughout our history,” Mr. Trump mentioned.

Mr. Trump additionally mentioned his creation of a Space Force, a brand new department of the army, and mentioned this and different insurance policies of his administration aimed to assist the United States regain status as a worldwide chief in area.

“With this launch the decades of lost years and little action are officially over,” Mr. Trump mentioned. “A new age of American ambition has begun.”

The president briefly addressed the coronavirus pandemic, saying the identical dedication and resolve that despatched us to area may even conquer the illness on Earth.

President Trump gave a celebratory speech on Saturday after the astronauts launched to orbit that hailed his administration’s contributions to the mission whereas overlooking the important thing roles that earlier presidents performed.

Mr. Trump’s administration has elevated elements of area coverage in his White House, re-establishing a National Space Council led by Vice President Pence, and including a Space Force to the Department of Defense. He has additionally his set his personal main priorities for NASA — a visit to the moon by the top of 2024 as a begin for journeys to Mars — not not like president earlier than him.

But the president additionally criticized the state of NASA underneath earlier administrations.

“When I first came into office three and a half years ago, NASA had lost its way and the excitement, energy and ambition as almost everybody in this room knows was done,” he mentioned, referring additionally to cracks rising in runways on the Kennedy Space Center, and singling out the Obama administration as a result of it “presided over the closing of the space shuttle.”

NASA did retire the nation’s area shuttle fleet whereas President Obama was in workplace, however this was a call that was initiated throughout the administration of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Mr. Trump additionally mentioned that “past leaders put the astronauts at the mercy of foreign nations to send them into orbit,” referring to using Russia’s Soyuz area capsules. But whereas earlier administrations made the choices that led to that reality, additionally they initiated the insurance policies that led to Saturday’s launch.

The business crew program that SpaceX’s launch was part of began underneath President Barack Obama in 2011. It encountered fierce opposition from members of Congress, which at first didn’t present as a lot cash as NASA requested for. While this slowed growth, Mr. Obama’s NASA administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., caught with this system, steadily advancing it.

Mr. Bolden “did just yeoman’s work in order to get this program off the ground to get it going. And here we are, all these years later, having this success,” Mr. Bridenstine mentioned earlier this week.

And the crew program itself was modeled after NASA’s business cargo program, which paid SpaceX and different corporations throughout George W. Bush’s presidency to develop cheaper capsules to ship supplies to the International Space Station.

So the insurance policies that led to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch are the results of continuity throughout three administrations, with Mr. Trump’s NASA administrator carrying the baton throughout the end line after he was confirmed by the Senate about 15 months into Mr. Trump’s presidency.

SpaceX has by no means taken folks to area earlier than. Its Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded model of SpaceX’s authentic Dragon capsule, which has been used many instances to carry cargo, however not folks, to the area station.

Crew Dragon has area for up to seven folks however could have solely 4 seats for NASA missions. If this launch succeeds, it’s going to ferry 4 astronauts to the area station later within the yr.

The capsule that carried Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley had been anonymous till it bought to orbit. Saturday evening, the astronauts introduced the identify that they had given it: Endeavour, a moniker it shares with each an area shuttle and a British naval analysis vessel commanded by James Cook.

Michael Bay, the director of the 1998 cosmic catastrophe film “Armageddon,” as soon as gave an interview discussing the worst crisis in the making of the film.

“Three weeks before our first day of principal photography, I went to see the spacesuits,” he said. “They looked like an Adidas jogging suit on a rack. That’s where I almost killed myself.” Because, he said, if you don’t have “cool” spacesuits, the whole movie is sunk.

After all, when it comes to capturing the public imagination around space travel, style matters.

“Suits are the charismatic mammals of space hardware,” said Cathleen Lewis, the curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. “They evoke the human experience.”

To replace the shuttles, NASA decided to turn to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — in essence to produce the rental-car equivalent of spacecraft. NASA would then buy tickets aboard its capsules for the rides to space.

This program has turned out much less expensive than if NASA had developed its own replacement spacecraft, although the capsules have faced many delays on the way to being ready to launch.

NASA under the Trump administration is also hoping to spur more commercial use of the space station, for purposes including tourism. Although the tickets would be expensive, passengers can buy rides to orbit aboard SpaceX’s capsule and may purchase seats on the Boeing capsule once it is ready to fly.

Despite warnings from NASA to stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus, about 150,000 people came out to view the launch on Wednesday in the parts of Florida around Kennedy Space Center. Peter Cranis, the executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, which made that estimate, said he’s expecting another few hundred thousand viewers this weekend.

The Kennedy Space Center was not open to the public on Wednesday, but its visitor center was partially opened on Saturday.

Mr. Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said guests were to observe social distancing guidelines on the agency’s grounds.

“What we expect is that when people come here, they follow the guidance of the governor.”

The Crew Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station 19 hours after launch on Sunday, at about 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. During their trip, the astronauts will test to test how the spacecraft flies and verify that the systems are performing as designed. Unless something goes wrong, the Crew Dragon’s computers usually handle all of the maneuvering and docking procedures.

Thus, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley are now expected to stay at the station at least a month to help Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Behnken has trained to perform spacewalks, and Mr. Hurley took refresher classes on how to operate the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.

The decision to retire the space shuttles was made in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia shuttle a year earlier. The shuttles were needed to complete construction of the space station. But their engines, heat tiles and aerodynamics made them complex to fly and maintain. Those factors, and the expense of continuing to operate them, led the Bush administration to decide that the money should be directed instead to sending astronauts back to the moon in a program called Constellation.

The space station was completed in 2011, and the shuttles were retired. The Obama administration, however, decided that Constellation was too expensive and canceled it. It then started the commercial crew program that led to the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner.

Astronauts have been living on the International Space Station continuously for almost 20 years. After the retirement of the shuttles, NASA has had to rely on the Russians for the astronaut transportation, paying tens of millions of dollars for each seat aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.

The Soyuz is based on a model that was first built by the Soviet space program in the 1960s, and the capsule typically flies to and from the space station several times each year. With the start of commercial crew missions, the number of Soyuz flights will likely fall.

NASA astronauts are likely to continue flying on Soyuz launches — and Russian astronauts on SpaceX and Boeing missions — so that the crew members are familiar with all of the different systems. However, NASA would then not be paying for Soyuz trips, but instead trading a seat on a Boeing or SpaceX craft for one on a Soyuz.

President Trump congratulated Mr. Musk in a speech following the launch, and detailed Mr. Musk’s path from internet entrepreneur to aerospace investor.

“Moments ago SpaceX became the first private company to put humans into orbit,” Mr. Trump said. “Elon Musk, congratulations. For he and 8,000 SpaceX employees, today is the fulfillment of a dream almost two decades in the making.”

Mr. Musk, not unlike the president, is not one to hold his tongue, or his Twitter cursor. But in his role at SpaceX, he has kept a lower profile than at Tesla, the electric-car company that he personifies.

With Tesla, Mr. Musk has inveighed against what he views as obstacles to doing business, including local shelter-at-home policies aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus, stock short-sellers and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But SpaceX, which as a private company is subject to less federal scrutiny — and which has been allowed to operate through the pandemic — has evaded much of what has irritated him at Tesla.

That may be partly because the company answers to a far smaller group of investors, including Mr. Musk himself, the venture capital firms Founders Fund and DFJ, Google and Fidelity. And SpaceX is guided by Gwynne Shotwell, an aerospace veteran who joined the company as its 11th employee in 2002 and has been its president for more than a decade — a delegation of authority that Mr. Musk has not practiced at Tesla.

SpaceX is based in Hawthorne, Calif., near the Los Angeles International Airport, in an area that was for decades a hub of government contractors serving the military and space missions. SpaceX also operates a test site in Texas.

The Crew Dragon is roughly comparable in size to the Apollo capsule that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Earlier NASA capsules — Mercury and Gemini — were smaller.

The inside is far sleeker than what NASA astronauts sat in 50 years ago and even the space shuttles. The computing power available is much greater now, allowing touch screens to replace the buttons and joy sticks that were used in earlier spacecraft.

“Growing up as a pilot, my whole career having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” Mr. Hurley said. “So it’s a little bit different way of doing it. But the design in general has worked out very well.”

SpaceX’s counterpart in the commercial crew program, Boeing, may not be able to launch astronauts until next year. An uncrewed flight last year suffered significant software errors, which prevented the spacecraft from achieving its primary goal of docking at the space station, and could have led to a loss of the spacecraft during its orbital test. Boeing will now repeat the uncrewed test later this year before putting astronauts aboard.

Closer to Earth, a couple of companies — Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic — are developing spacecraft that provide brief up-and-down tourist rides to the edge of space, although neither is capable of making the trip to the space station, or even to orbit.

Reporting was contributed by Kenneth Chang, Mariel Padilla, Vanessa Friedman, Niraj Chokshi, Peter Baker and Michael Roston.



Source link Nytimes.com

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