Why the manned flight of the SpaceX capsule to the International Station opens a new era in space exploration

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For the first time since the stopping of the American space shuttle in 2011, two astronauts set off Wednesday from Florida to join the International Space Station, in Earth orbit. Their ship was designed by the company of Elon Musk.

It will take more to discourage enthusiasts. As the Covid-19 epidemic hits the United States, NASA decided to close the Kennedy Space Center (Florida) as a precaution to visitors. Jim Bridenstine, the agency administrator, even asked the public to stay home. But Brevard County Sheriff, where Center is located, warns magazine Time : “I’m not going to ban Americans from attending a great moment in history.”

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Because physical distance or not, they should be many to raise their heads from the beaches of the Florida coast, Wednesday, May 27 afternoon (22:33 in France): for the first time in nine years, American astronauts will take off from their own soil, direction the International Space Station. And for the first time, the American space agency has chosen to bet on the ship of a private company: SpaceX.

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The Crew Dragon capsule, developed by the whimsical company Elon Musk, will be the new means of access to the ISS for American astronauts. A futuristic design vessel packed with state-of-the-art equipment. The traditional orange pressurized suits were even swapped for outfits with a sleek design drawn by a Hollywood costume designer, used to blockbusters.

To conduct this first flight from the capsule to Earth orbit, NASA chose two space flight veterans: Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken, 53 and 49 years old, authors of two missions each aboard the old American space shuttle. Sizes in the field.

Astronauts & nbsp; Douglas G. Hurley (left) and Robert L. Behnken (right), dressed in their spacesuits created by SpaceX, at the Kennedy Space Center (Florida, USA), May 23, 2020.
Astronauts Douglas G. Hurley (left) and Robert L. Behnken (right), dressed in their spacesuits created by SpaceX, at the Kennedy Space Center (Florida, USA), May 23, 2020. (BILL INGALLS / NASA / AFP)

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The objective? Perform the first full-scale test of the SpaceX spacecraft with a crew before launching regular flights to low Earth orbit. All the rocket’s sensors will be carefully observed from the ground to leave nothing to chance.

As for the flight plan, astronauts Hurley and Behnken will automatically dock at the International Space Station (ISS) approximately nineteen hours after takeoff from the old lunar mission launch pad. They will support the three members of the Russian-American crew in their scientific experiments – the primary mission of the ISS -, before leaving for Earth in their Crew Dragon capsule, which will land in the Atlantic Ocean before the end of summer. And if all the lights are green, after this test mission, another mission, the first called “routine”, will be launched before the end of the year to the station.

This call to the private sector is not a first for the United States space agency: until its stop in 2011, the American space shuttle involved, for example, big names in the aerospace sector such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing. And in total, NASA is today supported in all its activities by at least 130 service providers.

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But this mission marks a new stage. For the first time, NASA is launching a manned capsule designed and operated for it by a private company. The goal: to save public money by delegating to companies access to Earth’s orbit to focus on space exploration, with the Moon and Mars in sight.

Like the aeronautical giant Boeing, SpaceX had signed in 2014 a contract to develop a manned capsule desired by the American agency within the Crew Commercial Program (Commercial Crew Program), launched in 2010 on the eve of the retirement of the American space shuttle. Specifications ? At least four seats on board, total security for the crew, space allocated to cargo, or the possibility of keeping the capsule stowed for 210 days at the International Space Station. But for technical details, NASA does not intervene. Space X has free rein.

SpaceX boss Elon Musk (in black) at a press conference with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine (left) and astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken on October 10, 2019 at SpaceX premises in Hawthorne (California, United States).
SpaceX boss Elon Musk (in black) at a press conference with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine (left) and astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken on October 10, 2019 at SpaceX premises in Hawthorne (California, United States). (PHILIP PACHECO / AFP)

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The company then went to great lengths to develop its capsule … but not from scratch. Because Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon is largely inspired by his Dragon cargo ship, also operated by NASA since 2012 to refuel the station. After a partial failure, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, it should experience its first flight with crew in 2021, leaving SpaceX pole position.

Especially since competition is fierce in the field of commercial flights: other billionaires, like the American Jeff Bezos (the boss of Amazon) or the British Richard Branson, want to make space a business, not only vis-à-vis space agencies, but also the general public. Richard Branson, the boss of Virgin Galactic, for example, wants to send his customers a few minutes into space for no less than $ 250,000.

If the mission of this Wednesday, May 27 goes smoothly, the bet of Elon Musk, boss of Tesla and founder of PayPal, will therefore have been a success. A success amplified by a corporate communication with sci-fi accents, like this Tesla car sent into space in 2018 with a mannequin on board, or these stages of rockets that land, engines on, to be reused.

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“Elon Musk is modern, it has attracted young people who wanted a little pep. When he goes on the launch pad with a Tesla, well so much the better, it can make them vibrate”, welcomes Michel Tognini, former French astronaut. “The stroke of ‘com’ is a plus, but the important thing is to leave from point A to point B safely, underlines the former head of the European Astronaut Center. And, with my eyes as an operational astronaut and technician, I see that it is a very reliable means of transport. “

The launch of SpaceX is also an issue of independence and national prestige for the Americans, who have been forced for nine years to fly on Russian vessels, the only ones, with the Chinese, to have such means of transport. For NASA, the Crew Dragon capsule is also a good way to save money. Because to continue sending astronauts into orbit, the United States has relied so far on Russian Soyuz spacecraft launched from the historic Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan. A costly collaboration: the price of a Soyuz seat cost the American taxpayer $ 86 million this year.

The Crew Dragon capsule and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in a horizontal position, May 21, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center (Florida, United States).
The Crew Dragon capsule and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in a horizontal position, May 21, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center (Florida, United States). (SPACEX / AFP)

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By comparison, a seat on the Crew Dragon is estimated at $ 55 million. A considerable gain, when the American space shuttle, it returned to 450 million dollars per mission.

Enough to allow NASA to focus on the return of astronauts to lunar soil, last trampled in 1972. Because with the Artemis program, President Donald Trump wishes the Americans to return to the Moon in 2024. So l he agency continues to develop its new spacecraft, Orion, and its most powerful launcher ever built, dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS). Always in collaboration with companies like Boeing.

“But the cooperation continues”, would like to emphasize the former French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. “Russians will fly on American ships, and Americans will continue to take the Russian Soyuz so that there is always an international crew in orbit.” And the SpaceX spacecraft docked at the station will serve as a lifeboat for all, a task hitherto devolved solely to Soyuz.

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Russians and Americans are finally part of the international consortium which should launch, during this decade, the first station in lunar orbit, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. The United States therefore once again has independent access to space, but cooperation does not stop, far from it.

The goal is that we can, in ten years or even before, make space agencies cooperate and that we can go together to the Moon to plant an Earth flag.Michel Togniniat franceinfo

On the European side, this mission has a consequence: Thomas Pesquet, who had joined the orbital station thanks to the Russians, will borrow an American ship at the end of 2021. The result of agreements signed in 1998 and which require the Americans to watch transporting Europeans to the International Space Station. But between Boeing and SpaceX, the choice of capsule has not yet been finalized.

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