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First commercial space taxi a pit stop on Musk’s Mars quest – 570 News

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It all started with the dream of growing a rose on Mars.

That vision, Elon Musk’s vision, morphed into a shake-up of the old space industry, and a fleet of new private rockets. Now, those rockets will launch NASA astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station — the first time a for-profit company will carry astronauts into the cosmos.

It’s a milestone in the effort to commercialize space. But for Musk’s company, SpaceX, it’s also the latest milestone in a wild ride that began with epic failures and the threat of bankruptcy.

If the company’s eccentric founder and CEO has his way, this is just the beginning: He’s planning to build a city on the red planet, and live there.

“What I really want to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible, make it seem as though it’s something that we can do in our lifetimes and that you can go,” Musk told a cheering congress of space professionals in Mexico in 2016.

Musk “is a revolutionary change” in the space world, says Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, whose Jonathan’s Space Report has tracked launches and failures for decades.

Ex-astronaut and former Commercial Spaceflight Federation chief Michael Lopez-Alegria says, “I think history will look back at him like a da Vinci figure.”

Musk has become best known for Tesla, his audacious effort to build an electric vehicle company. But SpaceX predates it.

At 30, Musk was already wildly rich from selling his internet financial company PayPal and its predecessor Zip2. He arranged a series of lunches in Silicon Valley in 2001 with G. Scott Hubbard, who had been NASA’s Mars czar and was then running the agency’s Ames Research Center.

Musk wanted to somehow grow a rose on the red planet, show it to the world and inspire school children, recalls Hubbard.

“His real focus was having life on Mars,” says Hubbard, a Stanford University professor who now chairs SpaceX’s crew safety advisory panel.

The big problem, Hubbard told him, was building a rocket affordable enough to go to Mars. Less than a year later Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, was born.

There are many space companies and like all of them, SpaceX is designed for profit. But what’s different is that behind that profit motive is a goal, which is simply to “Get Elon to Mars,” McDowell says. “By having that longer-term vision, that’s pushed them to be more ambitious and really changed things.”

Everyone at SpaceX, from senior vice-presidents to the barista who offers its in-house cappuccinos and FroYo, “will tell you they are working to make humans multi-planetary,” says former SpaceX Director of Space Operations Garrett Reisman, an ex-astronaut now at the University of Southern California.

Musk founded the company just before NASA ramped up the notion of commercial space.

Traditionally, private firms built things or provided services for NASA, which remained the boss and owned the equipment. The idea of bigger roles for private companies has been around for more than 50 years, but the market and technology weren’t yet right.

NASA’s two deadly space shuttle accidents — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — were pivotal, says W. Henry Lambright, a professor of public policy at Syracuse University.

When Columbia disintegrated, NASA had to contemplate a post-space shuttle world. That’s where private companies came in, Lambright says.

After Columbia, the agency focused on returning astronauts to the moon, but still had to get cargo and astronauts to the space station, says Sean O’Keefe, who was NASA’s administrator at the time. A 2005 pilot project helped private companies develop ships to bring cargo to the station.

SpaceX got some of that initial funding. The company’s first three launches failed. The company could have just as easily failed too, but NASA stuck by SpaceX and it started to pay off, Lambright says.

“You can’t explain SpaceX without really understanding how NASA really kind of nurtured it in the early days,” Lambright says. “In a way, SpaceX is kind of a child of NASA.”

Since 2010, NASA has spent $6 billion to help private companies get people into orbit, with SpaceX and Boeing the biggest recipients, says Phil McAlister, NASA’s commercial spaceflight director.

NASA plans to spend another $2.5 billion to purchase 48 astronaut seats to the space station in 12 different flights, he says. At a little more than $50 million a ride, it’s much cheaper than what NASA has paid Russia for flights to the station.

Starting from scratch has given SpaceX an advantage over older firms and NASA that are stuck using legacy technology and infrastructure, O’Keefe says.

And SpaceX tries to build everything itself, giving the firm more control, Reisman says. The company saves money by reusing rockets, and it has customers aside from NASA.

The California company now has 6,000 employees. Its workers are young, highly caffeinated and put in 60- to 90-hour weeks, Hubbard and Reisman say. They also embrace risk more than their NASA counterparts.

Decisions that can take a year at NASA can be made in one or two meetings at SpaceX, says Reisman, who still advises the firm.

In 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad had a cracked nozzle extension on an engine. Normally that would mean rolling the rocket off the pad and a fix that would delay launch more than a month.

But with NASA’s permission, SpaceX engineer Florence Li was hoisted into the rocket nozzle with a crane and harness. Then, using what were essentially garden shears, she “cut the thing, we launched the next day and it worked,” Reisman says.

Musk is SpaceX’s public and unconventional face — smoking marijuana on a popular podcast, feuding with local officials about opening his Tesla plant during the pandemic, naming his newborn child “X Æ A-12.” But insiders say aerospace industry veteran Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer, is also key to the company’s success.

“The SpaceX way is actually a combination of Musk’s imagination and creativity and drive and Shotwell’s sound management and responsible engineering,” McDowell says.

But it all comes back to Musk’s dream. Former NASA chief O’Keefe says Musk has his eccentricities, huge doses of self-confidence and persistence, and that last part is key: “You have the capacity to get through a setback and look … toward where you’re trying to go.”

For Musk, it’s Mars.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Seth Borenstein, The Associated Press

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NASA astronauts describe 'smooth' ISS docking after SpaceX launch – The Globe and Mail

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Astronauts describe ride to space aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon – CBS News

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that boosted astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken into space provided a slightly rougher ride than expected during the later stages of the climb to orbit, but both said Monday they enjoyed their historic trip and marveled at a sooth-as-silk docking with the space station.

And yes, the Crew Dragon brought a “new car smell” to the lab complex.

“It absolutely did,” said station commander Chris Cassidy, the lone American aboard the station until Hurley and Behnken arrived Sunday. “Then when we got that hatch open, you could tell it was a brand new vehicle, with smiley faces on the other side, smiley face on mine, just as if you had bought a new car, the same kind of reaction.

“Wonderful to see my friends, and wonderful to see a brand new vehicle,” he said.

Astronaut Robert Behnken, left, Douglas Hurley, center, and space station commander Chris Cassidy talk with reporters Monday during a news conference from the International Space Station. Hurley and Behnken arrived at the lab Sunday after launch and a flawless rendezvous aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flag Hurley is holding was left aboard the station in 2011 at the end of NASA’s final shuttle flight. Hurley was part of that crew and plans to bring the flag home when he and Behnken return to Earth.

NASA TV


Hurley and Behnken blasted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center Saturday afternoon, strapped into a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

It was the first piloted launch to orbit from U.S. soil in nearly nine years, the first flight of a SpaceX rocket carrying astronauts and the first new crewed spacecraft to fly in space since the first shuttle mission 39 years ago.

Both Hurley and Behnken are space shuttle veterans, familiar with the initially rough ride when the orbiter’s powerful solid-propellant boosters were firing and the transition to a much smoother experience after the boosters were jettisoned and only the ship’s liquid fueled main engines were running.

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. The first stage, featuring nine Merlin engines, generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. The rocket’s second stage is powered by a single vacuum-rated Merlin engine.

“Shuttle had solid rocket boosters, those burned very rough for the first two-and-a-half minutes,” Hurley said. “The first stage with Falcon 9 … was a much smoother ride.”

He said the shutdown of the first stage engines, the separation of the first and second stages and then the ignition of the upper stage’s single engine was similar to the memorable launch sequence depicted in the movie “Apollo 13.”

“So the first stage engines shut off, and then it took some time between the booster separating and then the Merlin vacuum engine starting,” Hurley said. “At that point, we go from roughly three Gs (three times the normal force of gravity on the ground) to zero Gs for, I don’t know, a half a second probably, and then when that Merlin vacuum engine fires, then we start accelerating again.

“It got a little rougher with the Merlin vacuum engine, and it’ll be interesting to talk to the SpaceX folks to find out why it was a little bit rougher ride on second stage than it was for shuttle on those three main engines.”

The Crew Dragon is designed to rendezvous and dock with the space station autonomously, without any direct input from the crew. But for the first piloted test fight, Hurley took over manual control twice to verify astronauts can fly the ship on their own if necessary.

060120-sideview.jpg
A view of the Crew Dragon capsule docked to the space station as seen by a camera mounted on the lab’s solar power truss.

NASA TV


There were no problems and when the Crew Dragon docked with the station Sunday morning, Hurley and Behnken were unable to detect the impact.

“The thing that really stood out to both of us, and we mentioned it as soon as we docked, is we didn’t feel the docking,” Hurley said. “It was just so smooth.”

Hurley is a former test pilot and Behnken, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Caltech, is a veteran Air Force flight test engineer. They were selected for the first piloted Crew Dragon flight in part so they could bring those skills to evaluating the spacecraft before it begins operational missions to the space station in the late-summer timeframe.

“We’re there to evaluate how it does the mission and so far, it’s done just absolutely spectacularly,” Hurley said. “It’s a very clean vehicle. … It does everything we need it to do for this mission, so we’re very happy with that part of it.”

Including the operation of the Crew Dragon’s toilet. While he did not provide any details, Hurley said it is “very similar to the one we were used to in the space shuttle, and it worked very well. We had no issues with it.”

NASA managers have not yet decided how long Hurley and Behnken will remain in orbit. The Crew Dragon is certified for up to four months in space, but the crew could be ordered home earlier depending on how the space environment affects the capsule’s solar arrays, the weather in the Atlantic Ocean splashdown zone and other factors.

Not knowing when they might be coming home is “a little bit strange,” Behnken said. “I’m trying to explain it to my son, just six years old, and from his perspective, he’s just excited that we’re going to get a dog when I get home. And so he’s accepting that uncertainty and continuing to send messages to me while I’m on orbit.”

The mission is expected to last at least six weeks and possibly up to four months, far longer than their relatively brief shuttle flights. Staying in touch with their wives, both veteran astronauts, and their two sons is a top priority for both Hurley and Behnken.

“One of the things I was most excited about (after launch) was being able to make a phone call home,” Behnken said. “It’s been a long time since I launched into orbit, and I’ve got a little boy who got a chance to watch me do that for the first time in his life. And I just wanted to understand what his experience was and share that a little bit with him.

“He was able to make the trip back to Houston after watching the docking from down in Florida and was pretty excited about the whole thing. So that was wonderful for me.”

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Elon Musk announces Twitter break, but it’s a mystery as to why – Digital Trends

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Elon Musk surprised his 35 million Twitter followers on Monday night when he announced he was taking a break from the platform.

The message was short and sweet, and offered no explanation as to why he’d decided to step back from the microblogging site, or when he might be back.

The timing may be seen as interesting by some. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO has, after all, courted controversy in the past with some of his Twitter posts. So it’s possible he’s taken advice — or decided for himself — to steer clear of the site during a particularly turbulent time as protests and social unrest continue in multiple states following the police-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week.

But Musk isn’t one to shy away from controversy, so other factors could also be at play. The billionaire entrepreneur may simply want some time off following an intense period of activity in recent weeks that included a dispute with the authorities over the reopening of his Tesla manufacturing plant in California following coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders, and also a critical SpaceX mission involving the first-ever astronaut launch using the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

He also recently become a father again, and so may want to spend more time with his new son without thinking about his next Twitter post.

Musk’s penultimate post was a retweet 10 hours earlier of a NASA tweet linked to the recent Crew Dragon trip to the International Space Station.

Besides Monday’s post, his last personal tweet came on May 31 to announce that the Crew Dragon had successfully docked with the space station.

The response to Musk’s five-word tweet was mixed, with some wishing him a nice break, and others saying in no uncertain terms how happy they were about his decision.

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