How special is SpaceX-NASA’s Demo-2 mission?

NASA’s Astronauts, Behnken (left) and Hurley, ready for launch in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket set out for the International Space Station. This moment has been coined as ‘historic’, due to a variety of factors such as the unique partnership between commercial aerospace and government, reusable design ingenuity, and NASA’s shifting dependence away from Russian space initiatives. 

Humans launching themselves hundreds of above our planet’s surface isn’t a new practice and neither is the involvement of private aerospace unheard of. Yet, Space X’s Crew Dragon capsule has set precedent in ferrying two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by proving commercial ventures’ capability in conducting manned spaceflight- an operation that only governments have executed since Yuri Gagarin (USSR’s first cosmonaut) orbited Earth in 1961. 

 A key factor we must examine to decide how novel the launch is the partnership between government and private enterprise. Despite SpaceX  ‘history’ on 30th May 2020, the reality is that many other non-governmental companies were already developing the tech needed to send humans to space. Strictly speaking, SpaceX is not singular in securing contracts to fly NASA’s astronauts on their vessels. In the US, Boeing also has received the green light from NASA to transport its crew to and fro the ISS from 2017 onwards. Hence, SpaceX is far from the sole private corporation in the US, let alone the entire world, from providing a transport vehicle to government space pilots. 

However, Space X is at an advantage. Timeline-wise, SpaceX beats Boeing at this unique duopolistic junction along the supply chain. Boeing’s Crew Space Transportations (CST-100) Starliner made its test flight (without any humans onboard) as late as last December. An independent NASA committee had some serious reservations about the safety of Boeing’s vehicle. After all, space venture involves an extremely risky set of operations; safety is unanimously considered the top priority. 

“Despite this progress, which is definite and in fact measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program (Starliner)” 

McErlean, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Orbital Flight Test 

Arguably, SpaceX faced a  setback as its rocket exploded during a “Splash Landing” on an isolated ship in the middle of the ocean. Regardless, SpaceX is clearly a year ahead in its progress. 

SpaceShipOne (pictured above) was a rocket-powered aircraft (it was carried to high-speeds using a ‘mothership’ before it fired its thrusters). It was the first vehicle manufactured and launched by Scaled Composites, a private company, making its first flight carrying commercial pilots/ “space tourists” above the Karman line (more than 100km above sea level) in 2003. 

In order to develop oversight of public-private aerospace partnerships, we must appreciate the diverse nature of the space industry that spans astronaut transportation, space tourism, satellite control and maybe even planetary colonisation in the future. So taxiing space pilots to the ISS is by no means the sole space operation. Space tourism, for instance, is also a work in progress (please note that discussing the legality or ethics behind such a controversial topic is not the purpose of the article). At present, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are working on developing the technology needed to execute sub-orbital flight (simply going up/down rather than around earth). Blue Origin has already made more than half a dozen uncrewed test flights with its space vehicle, expecting to host passengers within the year. 

Reverting back to the topic of examining the significance of SpaceX’s recent launch, it appears, on face value there the Demo-2 mission has no correlation with space tourism. After all, two public astronauts (ex-US Air Force) were flown. Nor does it seem like this mission, in particular, demonstrates something innovative within the tourism domain unlike other companies like Scaled Composites more than a decade and a half ago. Hence, it seems logical to conclude that in the great grand partnership of private and public aerospace, the Crew Dragon trajectory is just one of the many Firsts. Keep in mind that space tourism and ferrying humans to ISS such collaboration. include satellites- driven by the state-owned space administrations and profit-oriented telecommunicators since the mid 20th century. 

Nevertheless, the success of the launch may serve as a beacon of American astronautics, to infinity and beyond. Over and above enacting as a massive confidence booster to private aerospace and SpaceX itself, it is possible that we may witness a favourable change in space legislation for non-governmental companies in the US. Such an effect was evidenced by important amendments to the Commercial Space Act of 1998. These changes took place in 2004 following the aforementioned precedent set by SpaceShipOne in 2003. Notably, the law formally applauded the capacity of the private sector.

“authorises commercial launch and reentry”

Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004

This very statement laid down the legislative groundwork for businesses like SpaceX to perform significant space operations, previously undertaken by governments only. It is too early to confidently assert if SpaceX’s manned expedition would be able to have a similar impact, although one is open to speculating. 

Regardless of how the completion of the flight impacts the wider realms of space exploration, it goes without saying that the safe return of both astronauts marked a momentous day for SpaceX. 

3rd Aug: SpaceX Founder Elon Musk is full of optimism shortly after the Crew Dragon landing
3rd Aug, Atlantic ocean: Crew Dragon after splashdown. During atmospheric re-entry, the pod has to survive temperatures as high as 2000 degree C resulting from the decelerating drag forces generated at speeds of even 27000 km/h. Yet, this pod has been designed for reuse.

While the recent success of the Demo-2 mission proves that SpaceX is on the route to progress, it is important to appreciate that the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 combo cannot be used for lunar/ martian journeys. A spacecraft and launch vehicle with entirely different design requirements (the Starship) is needed. Starship’s project development is largely independent of the technology used to send humans to the ISS. One’s success or failure is not the sole determining factor for the other. 

Furthermore, there were no major accidents or fatalities at any point in the operation between May 30th (launch) and August 3rd (landing). For an industry that has witnessed the explosions of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle along with 19 deaths for about 550 humans in space (compare that to one death per 7.9 million passenger boardings, 2008-17 data from an MIT study on aviation safety), a safe journey is a commendable achievement in itself. 

A simplified diagram of the planned flight stages that unfolded safely.  

Over and above that, the condition of the returned components was exemplary. In fact, NASA added a clause to the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract to allow SpaceX to fully reuse the spacecraft (Crew Dragon capsule +first stage Falcon 9 rocket), subject to various post-mission quality tests. In the past, boosters were designed for single use only. And even though the ‘flip’ looks straightforward on our diagram, there is immense potential for error. Imagine your beloved rocket being topped over just because it was slightly too windy. 

With all being said, SpaceX is far from being the exclusive aerospace corporation to partner with public administrations to explore space together. Yet, the Demo-2 mission has made a strong impact in modern US space history. It showed that a new dynamic between the private and public is not only possible but also promising, with the former providing the capital ferry the latter’s crew beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Demo-2’s exemplary operational success coupled with the rocket/pod’s reusability could confidently pave the way to safer, cheaper and more frequent visits to the deep void. 

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