From Ham to Dragon

Sunday May 31 2:00PM Update

They have arrived! Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley opened the hatch on the Crew Dragon and joined Expedition 63 on the International Space Station at 1:22pm Eastern Time and were greeted by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The crew will spend several days continuing to test the Dragon, making sure it is fully operational and ready to return crew members to earth. Then they will work with the other members of the space station crew to perform experiments and maintenance on the station, which has been in orbit with a human crew on board since the year 2000.

Sunday May 31 11:00am Update

It was just about 10:15am Eastern Time. The Crew Dragon, now named Endeavor by its crew, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, running on autopilot, approached and docked with the International Space Station. It had taken about 19 hours from liftoff Saturday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Saturday May 30 4:30PM Update

LIFTOFF! Crew Dragon is headed for the International Space Station. The first launch of American astronauts on an American vehicle from American soil went off without a hitch today. The Dragon with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board is now chasing the International Space Station with a scheduled arrival and docking about 10:30am Eastern Time Sunday morning. For some more detail on the orbital mechanics involved, check out the SpaceX site. And for continuous coverage through docking and the arrival celebration, check out NASA TV.

Wednesday May 27 5:20pm Update

Weather off the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida deteriorated throughout the day forcing a postponement of the planned history making launch of the Crewed Dragon with two NASA astronauts on board. SpaceX and NASA will try again to send Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on an American rocket from American soil for the first time in nine years on Saturday, May 30th at 3:22pm Eastern Time.

History in a Thumbnail

I remember my nine year old self begging my mother for permission to stay home one day from school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. But I had to watch “Ham,” the astrochimp, take off in a Mercury capsule on top of a Redstone rocket on a sunny January 31 in 1961, to become the first “hominid” in space.

This was the beginning of my life-long infatuation with space exploration.

When I was a senior in collage, December, 1972, I drove with classmates down the east coast to watch the liftoff of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon. I still remember the feeling as the Saturn V rocket lifted from the launch pad. It seemed like the entire earth was shaking.

In April, 1981, now working for CBS, I covered the first flight of the Space Shuttle. Another earth shaking moment as the ungainly combination of a huge tank with two rockets strapped to its sides and the shuttle itself riding its back rose into the skies.

Even more inspiring was the landing two days later on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force base in California. About the size of a 90 passenger DC-9 jetliner, the shuttle swooped out of the sky like an airplane on final approach. it was a beautiful sight.

I applied for a seat on the shuttle as part of the “Journalist in Space Project” There was also a “Teacher in Space Project” Both were cancelled when the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. 

Crew Dragon Demo-2

Which brings us to Crew Dragon Demo-2 (Demo-1 did not carry a human crew). If all goes according the plan (and I’ll keep refreshing the top of this blog with the latest developments), at 4:33 PM ET on Wednesday May 27th, 2020, veteran NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnkenas will take off on a journey to the International Space Station. They will be the first humans to ride in a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Both vehicles were designed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX under contract with NASA.

That marks another milestone. This is the first time a commercial company has been entrusted with a crewed mission to space. Donald J. Trump will be down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to bask in the limelight, and make sure he is in as many television images as he can be. Alongside Trump will be his trusted sidekick, Mike Pence, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma.

Commercial Crew was Obama-Biden Program

But make no mistake, this goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, returning Americans to space flight on American vehicles launched from American soil began in 2010, under the administration of President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. The NASA administrator was Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Charles F. Bolden, Jr.

The United States has been dependent on Russia for transportation to and from the space station since 2011, when the shuttle Atlantis, piloted by the same Douglas Hurley who will command Dragon Demo-2, landed at Kennedy ending what was the 135th and last shuttle mission.

Shuttle in History

The shuttle will, paradoxically, be remembered I think as one the greatest feats of engineering in history. The achievements of the shuttle program are too numerous to list here. It is hard to imagine how some of them could have been done with any other vehicle.

At the same time, we learned from the shuttle program that letting the politicians have control of the overall program goals led to fatal errors. The cost was two crews, 14 people, and two vehicles.

The shuttle was to be a “one size fits all” program, capable of doing anything that needed to be done in space. The lesson I hope we have all learned is that this is not practical. Humans are the most precious and the most fragile cargo that will ever ride into space. It is difficult and costly to protect us from that inhospitable and dangerous environment.

Humans will always have a role to play in space exploration. Any study of human history tells us that the need to explore is built into our very being. But we must not risk sending humans to space to do work automated systems can do.

In the early days of America’s human space flight program, the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, crew safety was first and foremost on the priority list. Still there were accidents and loss of life. In the shuttle, as anyone who has read the post-mortem reports of Columbia and Challenger can attest, there were points in the flight where a single failure could, and did, lead to catastrophe. In designing Mercury, Gemini and Apollo the goal was to always have a backup or abort mechanism in case of failure. I am happy to say that the backup/abort strategy has been followed in the design of the Falcon-Dragon about to make history.

Still it is worth saying one more time that the exploration of space is, at least today, a highly risky business. We will do it, because that’s just one of the things we humans do.

Godspeed Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnkenas, and the whole NASA-Space X team.



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