by Jeff Cunningham
This coming weekend is another launch for SpaceX, the developers of the revolutionary Falcon rocket (which they freely admit to naming after the Millenium Falcon) and the Dragon spacecraft that’s the focus of our campaign here at Take Back the Sky. This particular flight, however, could be called their most important one to date for a number of reasons. Most people don’t keep up with this stuff anymore, so we’re devoting today’s installment to giving you some background before the weekend’s fireworks.
First off, in case you weren’t aware, the space shuttle stopped flying in 2011, leaving the United States without a space ship of any kind, and no replacement in the works due to a lack of Congressional consensus and public support. That left NASA with no choice but to pay Russia “taxi fare” to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station–even now in the middle of strained U.S.-Russian relations–to the tune of $70.6 million USD per seat. That’s triple what NASA was paying before the end of the shuttle, and the price is expected to rise again in the near future.
Another problem with the whole arrangement is that Russia’s craft, the Soyuz, is barely big enough for three people and little else. To continue the car analogy, the space shuttle was this really convenient SUV that could carry loads of people AND some moving boxes at the same time. By comparision, astronauts aboard a Soyuz are limited to what they can literally cram beneath their individual seats. That means that we can’t bring down samples and other results from experiments conducted aboard the station back to Earth to be analyzed to, you know, cure cancer and stuff. In rocket science, this is called “downmass,” and without a reusable spacecraft that can provide this capability, all we can do is send astronauts up and down in the Soyuz, and send cargo in disposable unmanned “trucks” that the crew then fill with trash to burn up in the atmosphere along with it.
This is more than just an inconvenience, or even a stumbling block to scientific research. Last year, a spacesuit malfunction during a routine spacewalk placed an Italian astronaut in very real danger of losing his life. Without a proper ship capable of bringing up anything larger than a lunchbox within a reasonable amount of time, they haven’t been able to replace that suit.
That changes this weekend. The new Dragon private spacecraft developed by SpaceX that’s delivering supplies to the station and its Falcon launch vehicle can take astronauts and cosmonauts into space for a fraction of the cost of what NASA’s been paying to Russia, or even the cost of other proposed craft under development. It can take around 3,000 kg both up AND down–and yes, this flight is finally taking up the long-awaited replacement spacesuit, so private spaceflight is literally coming to the space program’s rescue.
Additionally, SpaceX is honoring CEO Elon Musk’s standing pledge to make leftover space available for student experiments and small, student-built satellites to fly into space. There’s just too much in the way of awesome science going up in this one flight to cover in this article, like a new way to grow plants in space for producing air and food, plus a fleet of 250 palm-sized satellites developed through a successful Kickstartr campaign.
That brings us to the biggest reason why we’re excited to see Dragon fly: not just because your petition signatures and letter-writing will get it named Serenity, but because it’s the first real step towards a space program by the people, for the people, not unlike the future portrayed in Firefly and Serenity.
This mission, Crew Re-supply Mission 3 (CRS-3), will bring us one step closer to that day, because it’s also a test flight. See, the rockets that take up capsule spacecraft and satellites to this day are classified as Expendable Launch Vehicles (ELV’s), meaning you pay hundreds of millions of dollars to launch your satellite or your people each time aboard a brand-new rocket, because the rocket is thrown away (either burns up on re-entry or gets dumped into the ocean) every time. Musk’s intent from the start of it all has been to make the Falcon history’s first completely resuable rocket.
See, contrary to popular belief, the shuttle was only partially reusable: the large brown fuel tank was thrown away and had to be rebuilt every time, the white booster rockets on the side were fished out of the ocean at great cost and must be scrubbed clean of sea salt and serviced in a very time-consuming process, and even the shuttle itself had to have each and every thermal protection tile on its underside removed and replaced. Since the car analogy has been working so well thus far, it’s like if, every day after you came home from work or classes, you had to change your car’s oil and get new tires. At that point, it’d be so expensive to own and keep up that you really would be better off bumming a ride from someone else.
Saturday night, however, when the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket separates and starts falling back down to Earth, it’ll have a little extra fuel left in the tank when it does. Why, you ask? As Wash would say, “it’s totally the legs.”
Those angled shapes on the side of the rocket are landing legs. On its way back down, that rocket stage will re-ignite its engines and come down like a bat out of hell to attempt to slow down and “land” on the surface of the Atlantic ocean. If they succeed, it won’t be long until rockets start landing right back at the same spot they lifted off from “like a down feather,” reducing the cost of launches by a hundred fold. It’s safe to say that all of us tuning in to the live streaming feed are in for one heck of a show.
CRS-3 is scheduled to lift-off at 10:50 PM EST on Saturday, March 30. If some mishap occurs, they’ll be able to try again the following day. Watch the show streamed live online, and then, if you enjoyed it, write CEO Elon Musk a letter to tell him so, and that it’d be so very shiny if he named the first Dragon to carry astronauts Serenity!