by Chris Tobias
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news these days, excitement and buzz continue to mount for the crewed demonstration flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (DM-2), which is scheduled to launch on May 27 at 4:33pm EDT (2033 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station.
Since 2012, we here at Take Back the Sky have been lobbying for SpaceX to name this Crew Dragon after Serenity, the fictional Firefly-class transport ship in Joss Whedon’s science-fiction television series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity. We’ve traveled to sci-fi and comics conventions across the East Coast, and we launched two online petitions and conducted numerous pen-and-paper petitions at cons, science fairs, Can’t Stop the Serenity screenings and Browncoat Balls. We also encouraged Browncoats and space enthusiasts to send letters, postcards and even leaves to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and president and COO Gwynne Shotwell asking them to christen the ship with that name.
Just this past weekend, the crew informed the media that they have in fact decided on a name for the spaceship, which they won’t reveal until the day on which she launches. That means right up until launch day, we still have a chance of success in our labor of love of nearly eight-years, but ultimately, when Crew Dragon takes Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley out to the black, she’ll either be called Serenity or she won’t.
Jeff and I started this campaign eight years ago when we discovered we shared a common goal while posting about the topic on the Yahoo message boards of the Pennsylvania Browncoats. From the very beginning, we talked about how positively epic the launch party for a spaceship named Serenity would be. If there’s one thing Browncoats know how to do, it’s throw a mighty fine shindig. Anyone who’s been to a Can’t Stop the Serenity charity event or a Browncoat Ball, or remembers the turnout at San Diego Comic-Con for the celebration of Firefly’s 10th anniversary, knows exactly what I’m talking about. As someone who has been passionately involved with the Browncoat community for nearly a decade, I promised myself that I would personally see to it that a crewed spaceship named Serenity had a launch party that Browncoats everywhere in the ‘verse could not only be proud of, but would want to be a part of.
In a perfect world, we would have been able to plan the annual Browncoat Ball in Orlando, Florida for the weekend closest to the launch. The problem with this, of course, is that launches, and even whole programs, have a tendency to be delayed in the space business. Anyone who has been with us since the beginning no doubt remembers that our earliest petitions stated that Crew Dragon (or Dragon 2 as she was known back then) could launch “… as early as 2015,” and if you were to compare the projected launch dates of the many missions we’ve written about over the years with the dates of their actual liftoff, you’d see that Badger’s assessment of crime and politics in the pilot episode of Firefly could very easily be applied to spaceflight as well: “The situation is always fluid.” A Browncoat Ball takes at least a year to plan, if not longer, and Browncoats come from all over the country to attend the event. If the ball were planned to coincide with a launch that was delayed for any reason, it’s not like we could just tell everybody the shindig was postponed and that they should go home and come back when the ship was finally ready to launch. Ultimately, I decided that bringing the Browncoat Ball to Orlando because of the launch of Crew Dragon and then having to hold the ball without the launch would be kind of like going ahead with a wedding reception after the bride left the groom at the altar for no other reason than because the reception hall and the band were already booked. Besides, Browncoat Ball is a formal affair, just like the ball in the Firefly episode “Shindig.” The vision I had for a Browncoat launch party on the Space Coast was part Dragon Con, part Coachella!
If I would have been able to plan a launch party for Browncoats to coincide with the launch of DM-2, I would have approached local businesses along the Space Coast for sponsorship, and once I had the necessary funding I would have made sure we had a (preferably covered) stage equipped with a sound system, with the intention of inviting Browncoat-friendly musical acts like Sean Faust, Mikey Mason, Marian Call, Marc Gunn, and bands like the Browncoats, Big Damn Heroes and the Browncoat Brass Band to perform sets throughout the day. I would have tried to get a local radio station or a popular local DJ to emcee and spin records in between the live acts, and after the launch, when the sun went down, that same DJ would preside over a dance party that would stretch well into the night. I would give the DJ complete creative freedom, but would stipulate that the song that kicked off the party after the launch would have to be “We Own the Sky” by M83, in honor of the fact that we’ve entered an age when private citizens are finally able to build and launch private spaceships that take folk out to the black.
I’ve been to more than my share of cons and Can’t Stop the Serenity events as well as the 2017 Browncoat Ball in Gettysburg, PA, so I have a pretty good idea of what the crowd would look like. I can imagine Browncoats from all over the world dressed as the characters from the TV series and the movie, as well as some who would just have on Firefly- and Serenity-themed t-shirts and Jayne Cobb’s famous cunning hat. There’s a chance the weather would be too hot for those famous long coats of a brownish color, but this particular fandom is a dedicated group, so you never know. I am certain there would be Independents flags flying proudly though, as well as a few that would proclaim, “YOU CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME.”
Of course I would have invited creator Joss Whedon and the cast and crew of Firefly and Serenity to attend, and if any of them actually showed they would be treated as guests of honor and given the opportunity to address the crowd.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and president and COO Gwynne Shotwell would obviously be pretty busy on launch day, but I would have reached out to them anyway, just to let them know that they were always welcome to sneak away from SpaceX’s own post-launch party to make an appearance at ours. Elon Musk seems like the type who would appreciate a good dance party (he did just have a child with Grimes, after all), so I figure it wouldn’t be out of the question that he might surprise everyone by showing up. And if he or Gwynne Shotwell did, we would certainly hand them the microphone and let them say a few words as well.
Another standing invitation we’d have been sure to extend would be to current and former astronauts, and if any of America’s real-life Big Damn Heroes were inclined to drop by, you can bet we’d treat them like guests of honor too. I’m not saying that any of them would necessarily attend, but most astronauts are still former jet jockeys, and it’s no secret that they love a party, so you never know.
I’m sure that local hotels and restaurants would have been swamped with Browncoats in the days before and after the launch, though I highly doubt they would have complained about the extra coin it brought them.
And yes, I know that there would have been a lot of logistical aspects of a launch party that would have had to be worked out, from arranging for on-site food and beverages, to portable restroom facilities and first aid stations, to vendors. A great deal of sponsorship would certainly have been required, but I’m also sure a lot of Browncoat groups across the country, especially some of the larger and more solidly established groups like the California Browncoats, the Utah Browncoats, the Mile High Browncoats, the Browncoats of New York City and this writer’s very own Pennsylvania Browncoats, would have answered the call to help plan and execute the event. And let’s not forget about the Central Florida Browncoats. I doubt they’d let one of the biggest shindigs in history be thrown in their own backyard without offering to help make sure everything was as shiny as it could be!
It’s obvious that an event like the one I’m describing couldn’t be thrown together on short notice, but had we succeeded years ago in our mission of getting the first Crew Dragon christened Serenity, I would have thoroughly enjoyed all the work that planning a launch party of this magnitude would have entailed. I have built up a decent list of contacts in the Browncoats community over the years, and I’m sure I would have had more than enough friends who were willing to help. I know I would have had a blast working with them to create an occasion that no one would ever forget.
And who knows? Even if the Crew Dragon that breaks atmo on May 27 isn’t christened Serenity, there will be others. And what’s more, SpaceX is currently hard at work on its Starship, the spacecraft that is destined to carry both cargo and crew not only into orbit, but also to the Moon, Mars, and maybe even farther out to the black. It seems to me that Serenity sound every bit as shiny referring to a SpaceX Starship as it would a Crew Dragon. So even if we don’t succeed in getting the first private, crewed spaceship named after Serenity, maybe someday we’ll have a SpaceX Starship with that name, and if we do, you can bet your life Browncoats will get their launch party after all.
But right now, with only a few days until Crew Dragon’s historic demo flight, we know that there will be no launch party. Regardless of whether or not she’s christened Serenity, the Coronavirus has ensured that when DM-2 launches, there will be no crowd of spectators to stare in wonder as she breaks atmo. No one but essential personnel will be on hand at Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch, and even if some states are starting to ease their stay-at-home restrictions, it still wouldn’t be responsible to encourage a massive gathering like a launch party when there is just no guarantee that it would be safe. In fact, NASA officials have already expressed concern about the very real possibility of huge spontaneous gatherings of people intent on witnessing the launch live as it is. They certainly don’t need us compounding that problem.
We couldn’t be more excited for the launch of Crew Dragon and the return of US astronauts to space from American soil. With or without the name Serenity on the side of the ship, it will still be the culmination of something that has been on our radar for nearly eight full years. Like millions of Americans, I’ll be glued to my screen on May 27, and Jeff and his family are among the really lucky ones who will be able to watch live from the safety of their backyard. Nothing, not even a global pandemic, could detract from the fact that it will be one of the most important moments our nation has experienced in this century. I know it will be a very emotional moment for me, and I know that mixed in with feelings of anticipation, excitement, pride, nostalgia, patriotism, hope and utter joy, there’s bound to be just a tinge of disappointment, and a brief melancholy reflection on the Browncoats launch party that could have been.
Peace, love and rockets…