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…
It’s hard to believe that the SpaceX Dragon capsule will be heading out to the black for the 20th time this coming week.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that we experienced the excitement of that first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station in October of 2012, almost one month to the day after Take Back the Sky was founded to convince Elon Musk and SpaceX to name the crewed version of the Dragon capsule after Joss Whedon’s fictional transport ship Serenity from the TV series Firefly.
Now, a little less than seven years later, the Dragon is about to make its 20th flight and its 18th operational delivery flight to the ISS, with liftoff scheduled NET Sunday, July 21 at 7:32 PM EST (23:32 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
As with the previous resupply missions, this one will deliver supplies, equipment and science investigations (a.k.a. experiments) to the ISS. Astronauts aboard the station will also be able to send completed experiments and equipment that is no longer needed or in need of repair back to Earth when the capsule makes its return trip.
Even though these Dragon resupply missions will soon number three dozen, they should not be taken for granted or regarded as routine. Each one is a unique opportunity for NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA and other space agencies of the world to do some pretty mind-blowing science. According to officials at Johnson Space Center, this particular mission will carry equipment and science investigations that will allow astronauts to test the ability to print human tissues and study the process of biomining in microgravity, as well as develop innovative bone healing therapies. Goodyear Tire will also test the limits of silica fillers in microgravity in an attempt to improve the manufacture and performance of its tires (putting a real emphasis on the “commercial” in Commercial Space). Other investigations will study how bacterial life adapts to long-term space travel, which might yield data that could lead to new therapies for diseases like Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis.
Over 40 of the experiments delivered on this mission were developed by students and educators. Many of these will utilize “MixStix,” tiny mixture enclosure tubes that use clamps to keep fluids or solids (such as chemicals or biological materials) separate until they are released in space, allowing the contents to mix.
The Dragon will also deliver a new docking adapter that will add another docking port for future US Commercial Crew vehicles (Crew Dragon, Starliner, Dream Chaser, etc.). This International Docking Adapter, designated IDA-3, will help convert the older shuttle-era Androgynous Peripheral Attach System-95 (APAS-95) docking systems on the ISS’s Pressurized Mating Adapter-2 and 3 (PMA-2 and PMA-3) docking ports into the newer International Docking System Standard (IDSS) style. IDA-3 is identical to the first International Docking Adapters, IDA-1, which was destroyed when the Falcon 9 that was carrying the Dragon of CRS-7 experienced an in-flight anomaly and was lost, and IDA-2, which has already been installed on the ISS. (IDA-2 was the docking port for Crew Dragon on her DM-1 mission.) IDA-3, which was constructed mainly from spare parts, will be extracted from the Dragon by Canadarm2 and and permanently installed by astronauts during an EVA (“spacewalk”) next month.
The Falcon 9 booster core for this mission also carried the last Dragon into orbit for the CRS-17 mission and was recovered aboard SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. After it takes this Dragon out to the black, it will return to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral.
Peace, love and rockets…
Here at Take Back the Sky, we’ve made no attempt to disguise the fact that we support and advocate independent spaceflight by private individuals – I think that gets called a “bias” these days. It has never had anything to do with politics. We just feel that pursuing a future like the kind depicted in Firefly and Serenity where any ordinary Joe can fly wherever they want in a ship of their own is worthy and noble.
The media likes to make a great deal of noise and bluster about recent advances in spaceflight and tries to get mileage out of it by depicting it as a David-and-Goliath battle between large companies set in their ways and smaller, scrappy upstarts driven by ideals. It’s a portrayal that is not without merit, for sure – a valid argument could be made that our progress out in the black has stagnated in large part due to complacency in the industry and its relationship with government as a contractor.
So, it’s no surprise that, when a company like SpaceX shakes things up and challenges others to adapt, it makes headlines. I mean, for the love of Shepherd Book, they’ve actually made space cool again. People by and large have been starving for something new, for things to pick back up again, and it’s only natural that SpaceX and other “New Space” companies garner attention for their impressive achievements.
It’s occurred to me recently, though, that in our excitement and newfound optimism for the future, it becomes very, very easy to dismiss or even disparage the accomplishments that still continue to be made by NASA and “legacy” companies, such as the Orion spacecraft – and that’s not because I started working for Lockheed-Martin. Speaking of which – Continue Reading
Ni-hao, y’all — Jeff here, Rocket-Scientist-in-Residence here at Take Back the Sky. I’ve been offline for some time now tending to a newly arrived future Browncoat. Last week, NASA finally announced the assignments of which astronauts will be assigned to which flights aboard which independently made American spacecraft. I’m rather surprised that no one is commenting on what’s right there in the open for everyone to see, so I thought I’d offer my two cents here. Continue Reading
SpaceX has worked with the US military before, but with Thursday’s scheduled launch of the Air Force’s infamous X-37B space plane aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, Elon Musk and company will become a part of conspiracy theory legend.
The X-37B, otherwise known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), has been referred to by some as “America’s drone space shuttle.” This orbital space plane, which does resemble a smaller version of the space shuttle, has officially flown four missions, which the Air Force said were to “conduct orbital experiments.”
Some have speculated, however, that the vehicle has been to space far more often, and there have even been claims that the Air Force has been flying two of these spacecraft for years, with one always in orbit and one on the ground. If you asked many Americans who know of the existence of the X-37B, they’d probably tell you that they believe its true mission is one of espionage, or perhaps even some “Star Wars-style” military mission similar to those outlined in President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative many decades ago. One need only search “X-37B” on YouTube to find numerous videos by “experts” who describe the OTV as a “mysterious” and “dirty” project that might even be testing an EM drive, some going so far as to claim that the Russians have threatened to expose the Air Force’s “quake plane” to the world.
Even the docents who give the tours at Kennedy Space Center apparently love stoking the fires of these wild theories, as I found out firsthand in August of 2015 when my tour group was shown (from a distance, of course) the hangar that housed the X-37B. Our guide, who was himself ex-Air Force, told us with a twinkle in his eye he could only confirm that the hangar was in fact for the X-37B, but that he couldn’t tell us any more because “then he’d have to kill us.”
Are we really to believe that that X-37B is some clandestine weapon, its flights ordered by some cigarette smoking man in the upper echelon of our nation’s military hierarchy in a facility accessible only to those with the highest levels of security clearance? Well, if it were, then consider this– it’d be pretty careless of the US government to allow the Air Force to contract a civilian space company to launch such a super secret space weapon– let alone the one civilian space company that has what is arguably the highest media profile of any on the planet! And that’s not to mention the fact that tourists are permitted within a few hundred yards of the vehicle’s “secret base” at Kennedy Space Center. Sorry, but when it comes to the OTV, I’m a bit more of a Scully than I am a Mulder.
What is possibly true of the X-37B is that the Air Force’s “orbital experiments” collect data that could be useful in the development of future weapons systems and delivery platforms that could be employed beyond Earth’s atmosphere. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the OTV could be a military test plane for space, minus the test pilot.
Whatever its purpose, this week’s launch of OTV-5 will mark the fifth official mission of the OTV and the first time that the X-37B will be carried into space by a privately-built, privately-owned rocket– a milestone that is no doubt the result of the fact that SpaceX’s ability to launch more cheaply than anyone around will save the Pentagon, and ultimately us taxpayers, a decent chunk of change over the long haul.
There is a certain irony to the fact that the OTV was built by Boeing, the company that shares the current Commercial Crew Program contract with SpaceX and with whom SpaceX is (unofficially) racing to be the first private company to return American astronauts to space from American soil. Either SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner will be the first spaceship to launch with a crew of NASA astronauts next year, and if it’s the former, then it is our hope that the ship will bear the name Serenity.
It’s also worth noting that for this launch, both the booster and the payload are reusable. SpaceX plans to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral after it sends the OTV into the black, and the X-37B will return to Earth and land like a conventional aircraft once its mission is complete.
The launch of OTV-5 is currently scheduled for Thursday, September 7. As would befit the launch of a secret space plane, no exact scheduled time for liftoff has been given as of yet. Hurricane Irma, which is bearing down on the Florida coastline, is not expected to affect the launch in any way, but even so the weather is currently less than optimal, putting the odds of a Thursday launch at around 50%. Nonetheless, SpaceX should have plenty of opportunity to get the OTV into Low Earth Orbit before Irma would force them to suspend operations.
Despite the secret nature of the payload, there’s no reason to believe that SpaceX won’t conduct its usual webcast for the launch, which should go live approximately 20 minutes before liftoff on SpaceX’s YouTube channel and at spacex.com.
We may never know the real mission of the X-37B, but when OTV-5 launches this week, we’ll be able to say with confidence that the truth is out there, and this time we have SpaceX to thank for it.
Peace, love and rockets…