Here Comes the Dragon

Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.

After the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, then President George W. Bush announced the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program. The spacecraft had been deemed so unsafe that each launch would have to be treated like a “first-launch”, with all of the precautions of a test launch, for the remainder of the life of the program. As this would make that already devastatingly expensive program unsustainable, they planned to fly the remainder of the contracted obligations to the International Space Station (ISS) and then stop flying. It’s replacement, a rocket and capsule system called Constellation, began development at the same time so as to be ready to take over flights to the ISS and also support the crewed exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Astronaut Dale Gardner holding a “For Sale” sign

The end of the Shuttle came during the the Obama administration, but the Shuttle stopped flying before the Constellation program had a suitable replacement ready. Obama cancelled the languishing Constellation and its capsule Orion altogether, along with plans to fly to the Moon and Mars. Congress wouldn’t have it and started their latest endless spaceflight development program…the Space Launch System (SLS), and a new capsule with a very unmemorable name (as clearly evidenced by the fact that I don’t remember it). Except neither were actually new since they were really just the Aries 5 launch system and Orion under other names. So, for nine years, we’ve paid Russia to shuttle our astronauts to and from the station.

About that same time Obama spilled the beans to the public and Congress about something that NASA had started working on called the Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew Programs. These were planned as a totally new procurement process than the traditional and wasteful Cost-Plus system. Actually, fixed-price contracts like these had been used for years in NASA’s Spin-Off program.

The Enhanced variant of Cygnus is seen approaching the ISS.

They started with cargo, where private companies (under NASA’s tutelage) would develop and fly spacecraft for flying cargo missions to and from the ISS. Then, after a time, crewed spacecraft would start flying also. Congress of course hated this idea and tried to kill it with the death of a thousand budget cuts, trying to slow Commercial Crew so that the horribly expensive SLS could begin flying first and serve that role.

Today, Constellation/SLS still does not fly, but the commercial cargo capability has been successfully operating for over seven years and Commercial Crew has flown two un-crewed test flights. The SpaceX Dragon flew successfully in March of 2019 and Boeing’s somewhat less than fully successful test flight occurred in December 2019.

NASA/JSC/Robert Markowitz – Cropped from NASA Commercial Crew group photo at JSC.jpg
SpaceX Dragon 2 (Crew Dragon) and the astronauts assigned to the first two flights, August 3, 2018. The astronauts are, from left to right: Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover.

Next week it all comes together. Planned for May 27th, NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken will board the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft for the first U.S. crewed launch to orbit since the last Space Shuttle Atlantis flight in mid-2011. This will be the third trip to space for both of them and Hurley flew on that final flight of the Shuttle.

These two men carry with them the hopes and dreams not only of a country tired of paying Russia for taxi service, but also of a world tired of the government monopoly on human spaceflight. With this successful flight, SpaceX will become the first non-government entity capable of putting folks into Earth orbit and one of only three organizations on Earth actively doing so (if you count China). Soon, when they get their act together, Boeing will join that club also, giving Commercial Crew an equal share with government in the space frontier.

A full-scale mockup of Bigelow Aerospace’s Space Station Alpha inside their facility in Nevada.

Both of these companies have already signed agreements with other private entities to soon begin flying people into space outside of NASA missions. Boeing has long partnered with space habitat innovator Bigelow Aerospace for transportation services to and from the private orbital habitats that Bigelow has been building and promoting since 2006. SpaceX has agreed with two space tourism companies to fly a Dragon mission for each of them…one flight would take folks on a brief orbital vacation, the other would take people on a tour of the ISS. SpaceX also has another human launch system under development capable of flights to the Moon and with one such mission already planned.

So, if you have never heard of this stuff until just now, and you find it exciting, then don’t relax just yet. There will be much more to come.

~ by Bill Housley on May 22, 2020.

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