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'Uphill battle': SpaceX overcame obstacles on road to historic 1st crew launch – Space.com

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Like most historic achievements, this one will be hard-won.

SpaceX is scheduled to launch its first crewed flight on May 27, sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the company’s Crew Dragon capsule. 

The mission, known as Demo-2, will mark the return of orbital human spaceflight to American soil for the first time since July 2011, when NASA retired its space shuttle fleet after 30 years of service. The plan was to have private vehicles such as Crew Dragon fill the shuttle’s shoes, but it was far from clear that everything would work out, said former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman.

Related: How SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space capsule works (infographic)

“It was an uphill battle,” said Reisman, a professor of astronautics practice at the University of Southern California who spent three months aboard the ISS in 2008 and also flew on a shuttle mission in 2010. 

“If I’d had to bet” back then, he told Space.com, “I probably would have bet against it.”

Reisman was in the trenches for this uphill battle. He joined SpaceX after leaving NASA, working for Elon Musk’s company from 2011 to 2018 and serving as director of crew operations during the latter part of that run. He remains a consultant for SpaceX (but stressed that his views are his own; he does not speak for the company).

The transition to the post-shuttle era began in 2010, when NASA’s Commercial Crew Program awarded its first contracts to private companies. (SpaceX didn’t get a contract in that first round but did snag money the next year, and in the major rounds that followed.) This type of public-private partnership represented a new approach to human spaceflight for the nation, and not everyone was on board with it.

“There were a lot of skeptics back in the day, and a lot of uncertainty about whether or not this model was a good idea even,” Reisman said. “You had government, industry and NASA administration all, at various different times, looking like they were going to shut this down.”

For example, Congress repeatedly granted far less money for commercial crew than had been allocated in federal budget requests. NASA officials have identified these budget shortfalls as a major cause of delays for the program, which originally envisioned its first crewed flight in 2015.

It was also difficult to get everybody on the same page, at least initially. A significant cultural gap existed between NASA and the private sector, which tended to approach problems in different ways, Reisman said.

“Frankly, there was a lot of mutual distrust and suspicion,” he said. “And difficulty bridging that gap, I think, was the most challenging thing.” 

But the gap was bridged, in what appears to be a lasting fashion, Reisman said. Much of the credit for that success, and the overall progress that commercial crew has made to date, goes to NASA’s commercial cargo program, he added.

That program, which was announced in 2006, helped get two private robotic resupply craft up and running. SpaceX’s cargo Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus freighter first visited the ISS in 2010 and 2013, respectively, and both vehicles routinely resupply the orbiting lab today.

Commercial cargo “really paved the way,” Reisman said. “I think if that program was not successful, we wouldn’t be here getting ready to put Bob and Doug into space on a SpaceX rocket.” 

And that success has snowballed. SpaceX isn’t the only company prepping to fly NASA astronauts; Boeing holds a similar commercial crew deal, which the aerospace giant will fulfill using its CST-100 Starliner capsule

And there’s much more going on in the world of private human spaceflight. For example, both Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin have flown multiple test missions with their suborbital crew-carrying vehicles; both could begin flying paying customers soon. 

Blue Origin also has plans to launch people to orbit or beyond, and Colorado-based company Sierra Nevada has crewed ambitions for its Dream Chaser space plane. And we could soon have commercial space stations operating in Earth orbit, run by companies such as Axiom Space.

“The time is right for private companies to take a more active role in human spaceflight,” Reisman said. “It’s really been a team effort.”

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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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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