by Chris Tobias
2020 is shaping up to be a big year for SpaceX, and a pivotal one for Take Back the Sky as well. Elon Musk and company are ringing in the New Year with two launches in quick succession on Florida’s Space Coast, and if all goes well, the second will clear one of the final hurdles on the way to sending US astronauts into space aboard Crew Dragon, the spaceship that, if our campaign of nearly 8 years succeeds, will soon be known to the world as Serenity.
January 6 marks the end of the Christmas season for many around the world with the feast of the Epiphany, and if the Magi were around in 2020 they might see a whole new constellation of artificial stars in the night sky. That’s because SpaceX is scheduled to launch its next flight of 60 Starlink satellites into the black this Monday. Starlink 2 will mark the latest addition to SpaceX’s fleet of satellites designed to create a network that will provide internet services to those who are not yet connected as well as reliable and affordable internet access across the globe.
Starlink 2 mission patch (Courtesy: spacexpatchlist.space)
This upcoming mission will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station NET January 6 at 9:19 PM EST, with a launch window that will remain open until 9:29 PM EST. At present weather conditions are 90% GO for launch, but in the event of a scrub the launch would be postponed to Tuesday, January 7 with a liftoff time that would be approximately 20 minutes earlier.
SpaceX confirmed on Twitter following the static fire that the booster supporting this mission previously launched the Iridium-8 and Telstar 18 VANTAGE missions, and the Falcon 9’s first stage is scheduled to be recovered once again aboard the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. SpaceX’s fairing-catching vessels, Ms. Chief and Ms. Tree, will attempt to catch the Falcon 9’s fairing halves during this mission as well.
Once deployed, these newest satellites will bring the strength of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation to 180 satellites in total, making it the largest fleet of commercial spacecraft in existence. In response to concerns from astronomers that an ever increasing fleet of Starlink satellites could interfere with astronomical observations, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell stated that one of the 60 satellites set for launch this Monday will test a new, less-reflective coating designed to reduce the brightness of the spacecraft.
But if you’re a supporter of our campaign here at Take Back the Sky, then the launch that’s of real interest is scheduled NET Saturday, January 11. That’s when SpaceX intends to execute an (uncrewed) in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This test is a one of the final tests required before astronauts can fly aboard the capsule as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Its exact liftoff time has yet to be announced.
Crew Dragon’s abort thrusters fire during a recent pad abort test. (Courtesy: spacenews.com)
The mission will be configured to take the uncrewed capsule to a predetermined altitude before initiating a mock emergency that will trigger a launch escape shortly after liftoff. The spacecraft will be forced to use its abort engines to push away from the rocket, demonstrating Crew Dragon’s capability to safely separate from the Falcon 9 in the unlikely event of an in-flight emergency.
There is no plan to recover the Falcon 9 that will be used for this mission. The booster is expected to break apart over the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted an animation on December 30 of a simulation of the first crewed flight of a Falcon 9/Dragon and tagged NASA in the tweet. In the ensuing Twitter conversation, Musk said, “Crew Dragon should be physically ready & at the Cape in Feb, but completing all safety reviews will probably take a few more months,” adding, “New technology development schedules tend to exhibit a version of Zeno’s Paradox— at any given point, you’re halfway there.”
Phrases like “a few more months” and “halfway there” would lead us to speculate that a crewed test flight could take place as early as this June, if not earlier. This means our efforts to convince Musk, Shotwell and anyone else at SpaceX who is in need of convincing that the first Crew Dragon should be christened Serenity have truly reached an endgame.
Of course we’re all well aware that when it comes to the space industry, delays are the rule rather than the exception, and just like Badger said about crime and politics in the pilot episode of Firefly, “… the situation is always fluid.” One of the biggest challenges to our campaign over the years has been convincing folk of the importance of consistently lobbying SpaceX in the face of multiple delays. Heck, our first online petition to SpaceX asking them to name their Crew Dragon Serenity stated that her first crewed flight could take place “… as early as 2015.”
But with statements like those Musk made at the end of December, it’s now extremely likely that the next time we see the ball drop in Times Square, American astronauts will have already broken atmo in the Crew Dragon.
So, if you’re a Browncoat, a fan of Joss Whedon’s work in general, or just someone who thinks Serenity would be an appropriate moniker for America’s next crewed spaceship, now is the time to send Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell a postcard or letter at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and tell them you want the first Crew Dragon to bear the name Serenity!
And then, once you’ve dropped that card or letter in the mailbox, you can log on to the live webcast of the Starlink 2 mission at spacex.com or on the company’s YouTube channel this Monday approximately 20 minutes before liftoff and watch SpaceX launch into the New Year.
From all of us here at Take Back the Sky, may your New Year be filled with good health, prosperity, and of course Serenity.
Peace, love and rockets…