SciComm, Spaceflight

5 things that made the SpaceX launch so cool!

All rocket launches are awesome feats of engineering and science, but what made Demo-2 special?

I’ve never watched a rocket launch in real life (I was meant to see the Parker Solar Probe launch in 2018, but it got pushed past the length of my visit to the space coast 😭) but every time I watch one virtually, I’m left in total awe. This launch was no different, and perhaps even more special for a couple of reasons: the build-up of the NASA social, the pent up energy from the scrub, being able to watch it with my family, and seeing the capsule fly over my town just a couple of hours after the launch! But why is it important? What does it mean for the future of spaceflight?

  1. The SpaceX capsule can carry 7 astronaut’s, although NASA will only ever use a maximum of 4 (though the Demo-2 mission only carried 2, probably to reduce losses if the worst had happened). Still, this capacity is greater than the Soyuz, means that they can maximise the utility of the ISS. Typically, a mission will have up to 6 astronauts, but between mission changeovers it can have as few as 3. With the CrewDragon craft, the 4 sleeping bays in the US modules will be pretty much permanently inhabited! This will increase scientific capabilities of the ISS twofold: which is good news for us back on Earth. From artificial retinas that could return sight to those suffering from macular degeneration (the most common type of blindness), to aiding disaster response and monitoring natural phenomenon, the purpose of the ISS is to aid humanity through science and technology, and having more astronauts up there means more time to conduct experiments!
  2. Crew Dragon is only the 16th vehicle to launch humans to space, and was the first to launch from America since 2011. Since then, only one- the Soyuz- has launched to the ISS, creating a monopoly that allowed the price to rise ever higher, up to a whopping $86 million. Over the 9 years, this totalled to over $3 billion, for 38 seats. But as I talked about in this post from last year, it’s a tiny amount compared to the total US *yearly* budget (over $3 trillion in total/ the NYPD budget is ~6 billion a year), and this was over nearly a decade. Plus, as I said above, what goes on in space, benefits us all! Having multiple vehicles flying into space, especially ones from commercial companies, will drive down the cost per seat due to competition. Currently, I don’t think NASA is too worried about whether Boeing or SpaceX is cheaper at the moment (although at the moment it’s SpaceX, Starliner costs about the same as Soyuz), but it’s definitely the start of more affordable spaceflight! If you wanted to know, CrewDragon costs just 55 million per launch, nearly half of the Soyuz cost!
  3. This competition is likely to start driving down the cost of launching to space. I doubt that we are going to see family vacations to orbit and beyond, at least for the regular person, for at least a few decades yet, but it does symbolise the dawn of a new era! Airplanes started off only being used by the government and the super-rich, but now (we’ll not right now of course) plane journeys are fairly commonplace. What do you think? Will we ever see properly ‘commercial’ spaceflight for the masses? Personally, I’m not to sure, as safety is a big consideration here and you don’t want to cut corners, and going to space is just a tad more difficult than hopping over the country/continent, but it’s really fun to imagine- thanks to companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, the future sometimes seems within our grasp! I’d love to hear your thoughts, so comment below or DM me on Instagram/Twitter.
  4. The Crew Dragon capsule looks so futuristic! The spacesuits- though some parts of the design are questionable- look like something out of a sci-fi film, yet are fully functional and actually n improvement on past spacesuits. They can’t be used on spacewalks yet, but they are designed to keep the astronauts safe in event of depressurisation. They are integrated with the seats, attached by an ‘umbilical cord’ that supplies air and communications. Both the seats and suits are custom built to each astronaut, to increase comfort on the journey up. This does make me question just how ‘reusable’ the capsule is, if they have to make new parts for each astronaut. In my opinion, the coolest part of the capsule are the touchscreens. Upon crew ingress (the technical term for getting into the capsule), the astronauts strap into their seats, which then rotate so that their backs are parallel to the ground (making it easier to cope with the intense g forces), and the displays are within easier reach. Gone are the thousands of dials and switches featured on the shuttle control panel, and the soviet era vibes of the Soyuz controls. Instead, they’ve been replaced with just two rows of vital switches and 3 sleek control panels. Time will tell whether this is practical, but astronaut undergo hours and hours of training to learn these systems. Plus they look really cool!
  5. Being the first ever commercial crewed launch (well, orbital, as virgin galactic and blue origin have been flying sub-orbitally for a few years now), not only symbolises the possibility of accessible spaceflight, but also the advent of sustainable space exploration. The Apollo program ended because its funding stopped. Any program funded entirely by the government is completely at the whim of politicians, who are (well should be) influenced by their constituents’ interests and beliefs (and economy of the country of course). It’s why NASA invests in outreach- if you can convey to people why going to space (or any research for that matter) is important and will improve their lives, then they are more likely to support you. It’s one of the reasons why I have a blog-“Science is not finished until it is communicated”- I fully stand by this, and increasing people’s “science capital” means that lifesaving, society-forwarding, research can be completed more quickly! Anyway, in order to go back to the moon, to stay, and make the program sustainable, NASA has realised that the safest option is partnership. Partnership with private companies, and partnership with other nations. Spaceflight has always been a way of uniting countries to a common goal, and project Artemis (NASA’s plan to return to the moon) is no different.

It’s safe to say I’m really excited by the potential of commercialised spaceflight! And more companies means more jobs in the space industry, which is good seeing as most of my dream jobs are to do with space. As well as this, more competition means faster innovation, which ultimately means more new science! Of course, there are some problems (like the fact that most astronauts, including the two who commanded Demo-2, are white males… where is the representation?! Or that although the man behind SpaceX is considered a modern genius he has also been quite problematic over the year, such as denying the risks of COVID-19). Even just from the spaceflight/ engineering perspective, I think there needs to be a regulatory authority to govern space, and make sure we are launching sustainably, ethically, and in an environmentally friendly fashion. Do you think sustainable spaceflight is possible? What’s your favourite thing about the launch, or the Crew Dragon capsule? Let me know in the comments.

Click the Image Above to find my instagram post of my thoughts on the timing of this launch, when many people are suffering from the pandemics of covid19 and racism.

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