by Chris Tobias
September is already shaping up to be a huge month for us here at Take Back the Sky, and no, I’m not talking about the fact that our second anniversary was on September 6 (though it is hard to believe it’s been two years since we first put out that call to convince Elon Musk to name SpaceX’s first manned Dragon spacecraft Serenity). I’m referring, of course, to the fact that SpaceX has been in the news a lot these past few weeks, and tonight (well, technically early tomorrow morning) they’re really going to grab some headlines with another resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Tonight’s launch of a Dragon capsule to resupply the ISS comes just days after NASA’s September 16 announcement that SpaceX has been chosen along with Boeing as a recipient of the Commercial Crew (CCtCap) contract to send astronauts back into space from US soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. SpaceX will receive 2.6 billion dollars to develop and launch its manned Dragon, otherwise known as the Dragon V2 or Dragon Crew, and will fly between two and six missions to the ISS starting in 2017.
This is significant on many levels. First of all, it will end American dependence on Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and its rockets. US astronauts will no longer have to hitch a ride on a Soyuz capsule in order to maintain an American presence on board the ISS. Launching astronauts into the black on board a Dragon will not only be a lot cheaper than using the Soyuz as a taxi service to Low Earth Orbit, but it will also eliminate the possibility of our space program being affected in a negative way by a change in the international political climate.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that although the Dragon V2’s crew will initially consist of NASA astronauts, we can fully expect that, over the course of its development and utilization, there will be a transition to a Dragon craft that is flown by astronauts who are selected and employed by SpaceX. This will be the moment we Browncoats have been waiting for, because from that day forward, space travel will no longer be restricted to our Earth’s governments. When a Dragon V2 with a SpaceX crew eventually breaks atmo, it will open the stars for the first time to truly private space flight, taking us one step closer to the freedom to travel into the black for no other reason other than because it’s where we want to be. Sure, traveling the ‘verse as Malcolm Reynolds knows it may still be in the distant future, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step, and we can now be certain that first small step isn’t all that far off.
Of course, SpaceX’s selection for the Commercial Crew contract has deep significance to us here at Take Back the Sky as well. For over two years now, we have been confident that it would be SpaceX that would send American astronauts back into space, and NASA’s announcement on September 16 confirmed what we believed all along. We now know that we were correct in focusing our efforts on Elon Musk and his company when campaigning for a manned US spacecraft named Serenity, and we believe now more than ever that we can make that a reality. We also now know that ship is scheduled to break atmo in 2017, which means time is of the essence if we want to be successful.
Tonight, SpaceX will carry out its fourth launch of an unmanned Dragon capsule on a resupply mission (CRS-4) to the ISS. These flights not only serve as great rehearsals for the day when a Dragon will launch with human cargo, but they also serve a vital purpose in NASA’s ongoing ISS mission. Unlike the Soyuz, the Dragon has ample room not only to transport much needed supplies and equipment for scientific experiments to the space station, but it also has the capability to return large amounts of “downmass,” including the results of experiments conducted in space, to Earth from the ISS.
On this mission, for example, the Dragon’s upmass will not only include a 3-D printer for the ISS, which will enable astronauts to produce parts and tools they need to carry out their work on orbit in the future, but also a replacement set of Long Life Batteries used in the Extravehicular Mobility Units (more commonly known as space suits) that are worn by the astronauts when conducting EVA’s (Extravehicular Activities), or space walks. Lack of confidence in the suits’ current batteries has caused the postponement of some recently scheduled EVA’s. Not only will the Dragon deliver new, reliable batteries for the EMU’s, it will also return the current ones to Earth for inspection and analysis.
This is not the first time the SpaceX Dragon has “saved the day” for NASA. On its third resupply mission, the Dragon delivered a replacement EMU to the ISS and returned to Earth with a suit that had malfunctioned during an EVA, causing water to leak into the suit’s helmet and nearly drowning an Italian ESA astronaut in the process. The ability to include larger cargo such as an EMU or its batteries in its downmass gives the Dragon a huge advantage over the Soyuz, which simply does not have any room to spare.
CRS-4 will launch from Cape Canaveral just before 2:15AM, EST on September 20 (weather permitting). The launch will be SpaceX’s second Dragon flight of the year, as well as the sixth launch of the year (and fourth flight in just ten weeks) for the Falcon 9 booster rocket, which SpaceX hopes will one day be reusable. If you’d like to view the launch, you can watch it live at both spacex.com and nasa.gov.
And of course, if you’d like to help us convince Elon Musk and SpaceX that the first crewed Dragon should be named Serenity, don’t forget to sign our online petition. And when you’re done, sit down and write him a good old-fashioned pen-and-paper letter telling him why Serenity would be the shiniest name in the ‘verse for a ship that in just a few year’s time is going to make history.