Elon Musk’s astronaut taxi
After a week at the International Space Station, Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has survived a burning hot trip through the atmosphere and splashed safely back to Earth. Now what?
So it sounds like Elon Musk had a good week?
Yep. The billionaire inventor-slash-engineer-slash-CEO (and real-life Tony Stark inspiration) was looking stressed last Sunday as SpaceX’s newest shuttle docked at the International Space Station (ISS). “To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted,” he told the press.
But the mission was a success. Crew Dragon spent five days at the ISS. On Friday, it returned safely to Earth with the help of some colourful parachutes, and landed in the ocean.
“This is an amazing achievement in American history,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
What’s the big deal?
Firstly, the mission was an amazing technological feat (more on that in a bit). But it was good for NASA in other ways too. Since its own space shuttles were retired in 2011, it has been relying on Russian spacecrafts to get Americans into space. Each seat aboard the three-person Soyuz shuttle costs about $80 million.
To solve this problem, in 2014, NASA paid SpaceX and Boeing billions of dollars to develop human transportation into space.
Crew Dragon is what SpaceX came up with. Although there were no humans aboard this latest trip, it proved that the technology works. SpaceX is now planning to send two NASA astronauts to the ISS this summer, marking a return to American spaceflight.
(Boeing will complete a similar test as soon as next month.)
How does it work?
Crew Dragon is a 8x4m capsule which can seat seven people. It launched last weekend on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, a reusable spacecraft which blasted off from Earth, detached from Crew Dragon, then flipped over and landed neatly back on the ground. This is an impressive manoeuvre, but one that has been happening regularly for a few years now.
Crew Dragon, however, was new. It went soaring into orbit, circling Earth 18 times before reaching the ISS.
The ISS was fitted with a new docking port in 2016, and Crew Dragon is built with various sensors and lasers to help it autonomously attach itself to that port. It got closer, backed away again (to practice for emergencies) and then finally docked. The three astronauts on board the ISS were able to open the hatches and go inside.
How did it get back?
It spent five days at the ISS. The astronauts swapped out the 200kg of supplies it had brought with it for about 150kg of experiment results and other equipment that was no longer needed. Then Crew Dragon detached, and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
This was the bit Musk was most worried about. The capsule’s unusual shape could cause it to tumble unsafely at hypersonic speeds. But everything went to plan — it survived the 1,600C heat of the atmosphere, and deployed four striped parachutes to soften its splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, about 230 miles off the coast of Florida.
The capsule (now looking like a toasted marshmallow) will test its emergency escape system in June. If that goes well, it will go ahead with its first passenger trip in the summer.
And after that?
NASA will start buying trips to the ISS aboard Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsule. But SpaceX and Boeing are private companies; they could sell the remaining seats to other space programs, or even private citizens.
Some companies are already thinking about setting up hotels in space. The American firm Bigelow Aerospace has promised to launch an inflatable space station as soon as 2021. “But none of these plans are possible without a way for humans to get there,” space industry analyst Caleb Williams told Wired.
That may not be a problem for much longer.
- Does everyone deserve a chance to go to space one day?
- Imagine you are the boss of a new space tourism company. Design and label your first hotel, which will orbit Earth about 250 miles above the surface.
- The space company founded by Musk in 2002.
- Billions of dollars
- SpaceX was given a $2.6 billion (£2 billion) contract and Boeing $4.2 billion (£3.2 billion).
- No humans
- There was a “smart dummy” named Ripley, after the main character in the Alien movies, on board. Ripley was covered in sensors so that NASA and SpaceX can see what the flight will be like for humans.
- Falcon 9
- Named after the Millennium Falcon (Han Solo’s spacecraft in the Star Wars movies) and the fact that it uses nine engines for lift off. The rocket is used to launch things into orbit (mostly satellites) and is capable of landing safely. It completed 21 missions last year, and 18 the year before that.
- Meaning it flies itself, although human crews will be able to intervene if they need to. In the past, the ISS has used a robot arm to grab visiting spacecraft and pull them towards a port.
- This was the common way of slowing down space shuttles in the 1960s and 1970s. Apollo 11 used similar red-and-white parachutes when returning Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins from the Moon almost 50 years ago.