Today, the Space Exploration Technologies Company, or SpaceX as it is more commonly known, made history by becoming the first private company to launch humans from American soil when a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule attached to the pointy end on top launched NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, from historic Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Aside from being a giant leap for a private company, the launch marks the first time that any humans have launched from American soil since Space Shuttle Atlantis, which was piloted by Hurley, launched from Pad 39A for STS-135 on July 8, 2011, and landed on July 21, 2011.
In the nearly a decade since “wheels stop” on Atlantis was called out in the predawn hours, the only way to get humans to and from the International Space Station has been in a Soyuz capsule launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
It is sobering to think that the country that put the first humans on the lunar surface went almost 10 years without a means to launch people into space from Kennedy Space Center.
The reasoning behind why the leader in space exploration lost its way and floundered, are best served in another column on another day. Today is a day to celebrate an achievement by SpaceX, and all of the dedicated people of the Commercial Crew Office at NASA. It is not a day to look back at a decade of starts, stops, and what ifs.
By all accounts, SpaceX was not supposed to be the company that returned humans into space from KSC, but they reached the finish line first by asking “why can’t we do it this way instead?,” versus sticking to what had always been done.
In 2002, I had an opportunity to hear SpaceX founder Elon Musk speak about his vision for changing the way spaceflight was conducted shortly after he founded SpaceX.
Many of the people in the audience thought it was crazy to think that a company could start from scratch and succeed in the aerospace business. Musk proved that one could in fact succeed as a new kid on the block.
Following SpaceX, several other commercial space firms, like Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, and Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson, were formed.
The new frontier of space exploration led by companies like SpaceX, and Blue Origin, is likely to lead to even more innovations as private companies look at the most cost-effective way to safely fly.
While the basics of flight dynamics remain a constant, there is always wiggle room in the margins. For decades, the first stage of rockets were left to rust away in a watery grave in the Atlantic Ocean. However, the science fiction foretold process of landing rockets upright became reality when SpaceX showed that they could land their Falcon 9 first stages upright on land, and on a barge at sea, in order to reuse them as a cost savings measure. SpaceX also looked into ways to catch fairings with a ship equipped with a large net like a ballplayer chasing down a baseball in the outfield.
SpaceX has had many innovations, however, that is not to say that the road was not bumpy. There were several high-profile failures leading up to this launch, including the loss of the vehicle that had previously flown to the ISS as part of the Demo 1 mission.
In fact, Musk has embraced the failures as learning opportunities by often saying, “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at NASA. Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Failures and losses of launch vehicles also occurred during the early development stages of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Programs. Additionally, the Apollo Program lost three astronauts during a tragic fire on the pad during a test run for the Apollo I mission.
The Space Shuttle Program saw the loss of 14 astronauts with the Challenger and Columbia incidents. Each of these cases show that no matter the decade, space travel remains difficult and filled with inherent risk.
These tragedies also underline the importance of learning lessons from each failure and taking steps to ensure that the same failures do not occur again.
Growing up in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center, I saw the dangers of space travel firsthand when I witnessed the Space Shuttle Challenger explode from my vantage point on the elementary school recess field. The teachers quickly ushered us back inside when they realized that something had gone wrong, but years later, I can still close my eyes and picture what the sky looked like on that cold January morning.
With the launch of Demo 2, a new era of government and private commercial partnership took one small step together. The Commercial Crew Program going to ISS is just the start of an ambitious interplanetary goal of returning to the moon, and eventually putting the first boot prints on the surface of Mars.
There are many challenges to go in order to reach those goals, and sadly history tells us that there may be tragedy as we stretch towards the unexplored horizons.
In a 1962 speech at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy, challenged America to go to the moon, “not because it was easy, but because it was hard.” Sadly, JFK was not alive to see his challenge fulfilled on July 20, 1969. However, over 50 years later, the center that bears his name is still pushing the envelope and reaching for the stars.
For five years, I have waited for the launch of this mission dubbed Demo 2. At times, I wondered whether this day would ever arrive after launch slip after launch slip was announced.
I had planned to be there for the launch in person cheering it on. The COVID-19 virus changed that plan, and I was forced to watch from home. Of course, that just meant that I had to cheer even louder, even though I have heard that in space no one can hear you scream.
Congratulations to all of the hardworking men and women who made the Demo 2 launch a success. I have seen firsthand the work in the trenches that went into getting to this point, so I know that the victory lap is both long overdue, and well deserved. Of course, the victory lap will be short, as there are more flights to get ready for.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go talk to somebody about their plans to occupy mars.
Copyright 2020 R. Anderson