Time has not helped drive the first flight into Earth orbit from the USA in the past nine years. Just over 16 minutes before the countdown ended, shortly after the rocket began to supply, the company SpaceX (responsible for the flight contracted by NASA) decided to suspend the launch of the Crew Dragon capsule, due to lack of weather conditions at the Kennedy Space Center. , in Florida. The next window comes on Saturday (30), at 4:22 pm (from Brasília). If it doesn't happen, another opportunity comes on Sunday.
When it occurs, the flight will be historic for two reasons. Not only is it the first manned space launch (excluding small, suborbital "jumps into space" made by Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity suborbital vehicle) since the retirement of the American space agency's space shuttles in 2011, but also is configured as the first orbital flight with crew to be carried out by a private company.
NASA is on this mission as a contractor / passenger. She is a partner, collaborator and financier, but the operation of the flight, as well as the ownership of the launch vehicle Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon capsule, belongs to the company SpaceX. The astronauts will be “delivered” to the company just over two hours before takeoff and fly as test pilots on the designated mission Demo-2 (Demo-1 was in 2019, unmanned), heading for the International Space Station (ISS) .
It is a great novelty. And, if all goes well, the beginning of an unprecedented shift in space exploration. Just remember that, in addition to the contract with Nasa, SpaceX also already has flights contracted with the private sector.
The Axiom company plans to make two annual manned flights to the International Space Station, starting in 2021. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who paid a small fortune to ride around the moon in a future SpaceX Starship vehicle, must first make a land orbital tour. Space tourism company Space Adventures also sells seats on future flights. And recently news circulated that Tom Cruise would be in talks with SpaceX and Nasa to shoot a movie in space.
NASA'S GREATEST SUCCESS IN THE DECADE
It is ironic that the most successful endeavor by the American space agency in the past ten years has been to pass the ball on to the private sector. But it happened, in a long gestation.
The first investment in the development of private crew transport came in 2010, during the Obama administration. The president's plan was to overturn NASA's direct development of space vehicles and foster competition between companies to provide these services to the agency.
In the midst of this initiative, the White House had proposed the summary cancellation of the Constellation project, created by the Bush administration in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle accident to take astronauts back to the moon. The US Congress, however, prevented the cut, and so much the Orion capsule as well as a high-capacity rocket (which has only changed its name from Ares V to SLS) continued to be developed, under NASA management, with Lockheed Martin (in the case of Orion) and Boeing (in the case of SLS).
It was defensible; Until then, no one was clear that private companies, with fixed-price contracts, without NASA's specialized management, could achieve the safety and reliability standards required for manned flights. In fact, the big test of that premise is still ahead, starting with this flight.
But the fact is, while Orion and SLS received much more eye-catching resources (about $ 37 billion and counting), and are still far from the first manned flight (at least 2022, probably 2023), the commercial crew program cost less US $ 8 billion. And what it generated were not one, but two capsules capable of manned flight.
The one that will fly first with crew was the cheapest of them. At the closing of the contract with SpaceX, in 2014, NASA paid for the development of Crew Dragon and for at least one manned test flight the sum of US $ 2.6 billion. A similar arrangement was made with Boeing, which would build its own capsule, CST-100 Starliner, and make at least one manned test flight, for $ 4.2 billion.
The first to reach the finish line would win a symbolic race. On board the International Space Station, in 2011, a small American flag was left by the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis. His destination was to return to Earth on the first manned mission launched from American soil after the retirement of the space shuttles.
One of the crew on the Atlantis mission (STS-135) was Doug Hurley, who now commands the SpaceX Demo-2 mission and will be able to return to the ISS to fetch the flag he left there more than nine years ago.
RELEASE IN PANDEMIA
While publicizing the historic flight as much as possible, NASA has asked the public to avoid crowds near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, from where the flight will depart. The concern is contagion with the new coronavirus.
The astronauts themselves had to go through a longer than usual quarantine before the flight, but, in medical terms, they did not undergo much greater scrutiny. “Apart from coronavirus tests, we haven't had many procedural changes. We are used to being examined extensively, ”said Hurley, in a video conference with the press.
Following the longstanding tradition of American space flight, astronauts intend to name their capsule – but keep the name secret until launch time.
The flight itself follows the traditional SpaceX launch script, even involving something never used before on manned flights: for the first time, the rocket will be fueled while the astronauts are already on board the capsule.
The ascent to orbit, driven by the two stages of the Falcon 9 rocket, should take about 12 minutes, before the Crew Dragon capsule starts its autonomous flight. Then a series of maneuvers and tests of the vehicle begins, culminating in the arrival at the ISS.
During the flight, Doug Hurley, as commander, will pilot the ship, carrying out the required tests in order to certify it for future missions. If all goes well, astronauts are expected to stay two to three months at the station. The exact duration is still uncertain and depends on the performance of the capsule's solar panels over the months, as it remains attached to the ISS.
NASA expects to fly the first regular flight of a Crew Dragon by the end of this year. The Americans Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker are already training to fly it, accompanied by the Japanese Soichi Noguchi.
On the second regular flight, for 2021, a Russian, Andrei Borisenko, is expected to compose the crew.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, naturally looks with some suspicion on the new American vehicles. Especially because, with its entry into operation, NASA is no longer the goose that lays the golden eggs in its space program, hiring exorbitantly priced seats for its astronauts on board the Soyuz capsules – the only means of access to the ISS since the retirement of the buses space.
As of now, if all goes well, NASA intends only to exchange seats, with Americans flying in Russian capsules in exchange for Russians flying in American capsules. The exchange allows greater security and more redundancy in access to the station. But it is no longer a cash mine for Russia.
As for Boeing's Starliner, it will still be some time before it can fly manned. The first unmanned test, conducted in December 2019, failed to take the capsule to the International Space Station. The company has already said it will carry out a new test without astronauts, still without a scheduled date, before proposing to conduct a manned flight.