NASA has scheduled the first crewed launch of SpaceX’s independently designed and developed Dragon spacecraft for 4:32 p.m. EDT (2032 GMT) on May 27, 2020 (barring unforeseen delays, such as a high probability of adverse weather). Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first American astronauts to go into space aboard an American-made ship since the former Space Shuttle program. Continue Reading
“Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back…”
— Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
On this date 53 years ago, a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 killed all three Apollo 1 crew members– Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White II (the first American to walk in space), and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.
In what can only be described as a cruel coincidence, the anniversaries of the other two most costly disasters in the history of the US space program both fall within a week of today’s. Tomorrow will mark the anniversary of the 1986 explosion during the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger that claimed the lives of her seven crew members– Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Payload Specialist and pioneer teacher in space Christa McAuliffe. This Saturday will mark the anniversary of the disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia during reentry, which claimed the lives of her crew of seven– Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and and Ilan Ramon (the first Israeli in space).
The names of these heroes are always worth repeating, and we at Take Back the Sky have written at length about these catastrophes over the past eight years. If you’d like to read any of our previous posts during this rough week of remembrance, you’ll find them if you conduct a simple search of our January and February archives of years past. If you’ve already read our previous articles, then might I suggest you observe this year’s anniversary by reading an NPR feature that was written on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy.
Though some of our younger readers may not have been born yet when these disasters occurred, those of us who were alive to experience the shock of hearing the news (or even seeing them live on television) will never forget where we were and what we were doing at the time. It would be easy to draw parallels to what many people experienced yesterday when they learned of the sudden and tragic deaths of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash in California.
However yesterday’s fatal crash, while equally tragic, will not lead to the grounding of all helicopter flights. The Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents did cause the suspension, at least temporarily, of the nation’s space program, and they certainly ignited debates as to whether or not sending men and women to space was too risky an endeavor.
In a 1962 speech at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy famously said of the Apollo program, “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” President Kennedy understood that it would be a rough road that would lead to the stars, but that traveling that road would bring out the very best that America has to offer on behalf of all humanity. The astronauts who perished on the launchpad in the Apollo 1 capsule and in space aboard Challenger and Columbia understood it too.
It is encouraging that SpaceX and Boeing will soon send US astronauts into space once again in American spaceships launched from American soil as part of the Commercial Crew Program, and NASA recently announced ambitious plans to return to the Moon and eventually press on to Mars. To those who would still insist that sending astronauts out to the black is too risky or too expensive, I can only respond that the risk and the expense are not only an investment in the future of mankind, but also the only truly fitting way to honor the memory of the brave men and women of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. It will be the crews of ships like Crew Dragon, Starliner and Orion that will carry on their legacy, and as long as we let them take back the sky, then the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia will not have died in vain.
Ad astra per aspera…
If you spend any time at all online, you’ve probably seen speculation every so often about a possible return of Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly, the Fox series that was cancelled in 2002 after only 11 of its 14 episodes had aired– mostly out of order and with gaps in its weekly broadcasts due to Major League Baseball playoffs and holiday programming.
And why not? The series only grew in popularity after its cancellation. Its devoted fan base, who came to be known as “Browncoats” (taking their name from the Independent forces in the series who fought for their freedom against the corporate super-government known as the Alliance), spurred brisk sales of the series’ DVD box set, and Universal Studios greenlit a major motion picture, Serenity, that was helmed by Whedon himself and reunited the series’ original cast to tie up most of the show’s loose ends.
Serenity debuted in theaters in August of 2005, and although there was never a sequel, both the movie and the TV series that inspired it have spawned a number of additional stories set in the Firefly ‘verse. There have been several comics series published by Dark Horse Comics and Boom! Studios that follow the exploits of the crew of Serenity, and publishers like Insight Editions and Titan Books have published numerous volumes covering every detail of the Firefly ‘verse, from handbooks and episode companions to prose novels and cookbooks. It also seems as though Firefly- and Serenity-licensed merchandise is at an all-time high. A quick online search will reveal clothing, board games, prop replicas, action figures and much more.
It’s obvious that the love of Browncoats the world over has kept Serenity relevant for nearly twenty years, so with reboots and revivals being all the rage in Hollywood these days, you’d think it would only be a matter of time until the executives at 21st Century Fox (now owned by the Walt Disney Company) decide to send Malcolm Reynolds and his crew back to the black. I’m sure if that happened, there’d be more than a few Browncoats that would be all manner of glad to see it.
I just wouldn’t be one of them.
I know what you’re thinking: “How could you say that, Chris? You’re a hardcore fan. There aren’t many folk out there whose coats have a more brownish color than yours. You’ve even spent the past seven years spearheading a movement to convince Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity. Why wouldn’t you want to see Firefly on the screen again?”
Well, read on and I’ll explain.
I thought I’d share a humorous little anecdote that is probably indicative of what the average American knows about our legacy in space. Before I do that, though, allow me to set the scene.
Today begins a week on the calendar which reminds us that going into the black is never something to be taken for granted. On this date in 1967, a flash fire in the command module during a test on the launch pad claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Tomorrow, January 28, will mark the 33rd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after launch with the loss of her entire crew: Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. And Friday, February 1, will mark the anniversary of the 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Over the years, I have written fairly extensively about these events and the astronauts whose lives they claimed, since I believe very strongly that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars, and if we do not continue to dare to push farther into the black, then these brave, extraordinary men and women will have died in vain. If you’d like to read any of my previous posts, just search the January and February archives on this site.
This year, however, I’d like to discuss, however briefly, this week of somber anniversaries within the context of our larger mission here at Take Back the Sky, which is to convince Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity, the ship in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi television series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity.
While it is true that we want SpaceX to name the first Crew Dragon Serenity after a ship from science-fiction, in much the same fashion that the first space shuttle was named Enterprise after the starship from Star Trek and SpaceX’s workhorse booster rocket the Falcon 9 was named after the Millenium Falcon of Star Wars fame, there is more to the name Serenity than a reference to a space western with a cult following, and at times like this, that becomes apparent.
If you google the noun “serenity,” you will find that it means “a state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled.” The word itself suggests balance and harmony, with no hint of turmoil or conflict. This is, of course, precisely the state of being we hope the late astronauts of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia have now found. Though the phrase “rest in peace” may have become almost cliché in this era of social media tweets and soundbites, when I hear the word “serenity,” I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock group Rush, who wrote in the song Presto, “I am made from the dust of the stars, and the oceans flow in my veins” or the words of the English poet Sarah Williams, who wrote, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I believe that if the next spaceship to carry US astronauts into space from American soil were to bear the name Serenity, its name would, among other things, serve as a living, working memorial to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to further our understanding of the stars. And as the first privately built, privately owned spaceship to carry US astronauts into space as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, it would send a message that we not only hope they are at peace, but that we, the people, fully intend to carry on their mission– that they can rest knowing we have the watch now.
SpaceX completed its static fire of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on January 24, and the ship’s unmanned demonstration flight is expected to take place next month. If you agree with me that Serenity would be a good name for the Crew Dragon, to honor those astronauts we’ve lost or for any reason, now is the time to write a letter or postcard to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell to let them know you want to see the ship bear that name. You can find the address for SpaceX as well as some tips for contacting them on the “Take Action” page of this site.
And whether you choose to contact SpaceX or not, don’t forget to say a prayer, light a candle, lift a glass or do whatever you personally find to be appropriate this week to honor the memory of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.
Ad astra, per aspera.
“Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free. You can’t take the sky from me. Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back. Burn the land and boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me. There’s no place I can be, since I found serenity. You can’t take the sky from me.”– Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
In the six years that Take Back the Sky has been campaigning for a SpaceX Crew Dragon named Serenity, we’ve been encouraging people to send cards and letters to the company’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, asking him to name the first ship of the line after the spaceship in Joss Whedon’s 2002 TV series Firefly.
From 2013-2016, Jeff and I appeared at numerous comics and science-fiction conventions across four states with the same message: it’s Elon Musk’s ship, and Elon Musk’s money, so, ultimately, the decision as to what the name of the first Crew Dragon will be is going to be his.
While that may still be true, in recent months some developments have led us to believe that Elon Musk himself may no longer be the key player in whether or not our campaign is successful. With less than a year to go until the Crew Dragon is launched for her first manned demo flight, we now believe that if we are to convince SpaceX to name the ship after Serenity, the person we really need to win over is President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell. Here’s why…
SpaceX plans to launch its thirteenth resupply mission to the International Space Station from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral, Florida this Tuesday, December 12 at 11:46AM EST. A Falcon 9 rocket will carry an unmanned Dragon capsule into the black loaded with supplies, equipment and science experiments, including NASA’s Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1) as well as a fiber optic payload. SpaceX will also attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 at the LZ-1 landing site at Cape Canaveral.
This is SpaceX’s first mission since indefinitely postponing the “Zuma” rocket launch that was to have taken place at LC-39A at Cape Canaveral last month. SpaceX indicated that it had some concerns stemming from a payload fairing test for another customer (the “Zuma” mission is supposed to launch a clandestine payload for an unnamed government agency), and that it was standing down until engineers completed their analysis. At this time that mission has yet to be rescheduled, but there are no such concerns for this launch.
According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, Tuesday’s launch of the Dragon will also be the first time that both the orbital rocket and the capsule are being re-flown. SpaceX has successfully reused Falcon 9 boosters on multiple occasions, and has already sent a reused Dragon capsule to the ISS, but this will be the first mission for which both the rocket and the capsule are flight proven. SpaceX has made reusability a priority for several years now, both in an attempt to lower costs and in order to take a significant step toward the day when frequent, perhaps even daily, launches both to and beyond Low Earth Orbit are commonplace.
A crewed version of the Dragon space capsule is scheduled to make its first manned test flight in the latter half of the coming year as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and as you probably well know by now, it’s this Crew Dragon that we hope will be named Serenity after the Firefly-class transport ship in Joss Whedon’s cult-classic space western TV series Firefly and motion picture Serenity. (If you want to know how you can help us make that happen, visit our Take Action page.)
In the meantime, the unmanned, flight proven version of the Dragon will begin its journey to the ISS on Tuesday, and you can watch the mission unfold live online. SpaceX’s webcast of the launch will go live at spacex.com and on the company’s YouTube channel approximately 20-30 minutes prior to liftoff.
Peace, love and rockets.