When American astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrive on the International Space Station this week, they may discover an uncommon message ready for them. On the within of the hatch the place their SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to dock, a small stars and stripes flag has been sealed in a plastic bag with a cryptic message connected. “Flown on STS-1 and STS-135. Solely to be eliminated by a crew launched from KSC.”
It sounds enigmatic however the which means is simple. The flag, which measures eight inches by 12 inches, was flown on board the primary house shuttle mission (STS-1) in 1981. And it was carried aloft in 2011 when the shuttle Atlantis rendezvoused with the house station on the final shuttle mission (STS-135). KSC merely stands for the Kennedy Area Centre.
Departing astronauts on Atlantis had left the flag and message earlier than flying their craft again to the US, the place it was grounded with the opposite remaining shuttle craft within the wake of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. Solely when Individuals returned – in a brand new fleet of their very own spaceships – was that flag to be introduced again to Earth, it was decreed.
Now that second is about to reach. After a spot of 9 years, throughout which US astronauts have needed to bear the ignominy of hitching rides to the house station in Russia’s cramped Soyuz space capsules, American women and men are set to return to orbit in their very own craft – on this case, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship.
It is going to be a triumphant second for America because it enters a brand new stage in its typically troubled manned house programme. Crewed spaceflights into low Earth orbit will now be taken over by personal companies which have already been ferrying provides to the house station. So far, solely the governments of America, Russia and China have been capable of mount manned house programmes. Now US enterprise is taking a lead.
“It’s an necessary second, not only for the US however for all the opposite nationwide teams concerned within the house station,” mentioned Frank De Winne, head of the European Space Company’s astronaut centre in Cologne. “We will have a full praise of seven astronauts on the station. At current, there are solely three as a result of transport has been restricted. Crew Dragon means we are able to get again as much as energy and meet up with all of the science that we couldn’t do for lack of personnel.”
Placing astronauts into orbit has at all times been pricey and has bedevilled efforts to open up house as a business frontier. Nasa had developed a robust danger aversion coverage, which meant its autos had been extra complicated than needed, and an absence of competitors offered no incentive to maintain prices down.
Now that’s altering. Aside from the involvement of Musk’s SpaceX firm, the aerospace big Boeing has additionally constructed its personal spaceship, Starliner, and later this yr it additionally plans to ferry astronauts to the house station. On the sidelines, corporations equivalent to Blue Origin, based by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Virgin Orbit, based by Richard Branson, and several other different corporations are additionally engaged on their very own business house plans.
“That ought to slowly have an impact,” mentioned De Winne. “Area journey ought to turn out to be cheaper as these totally different corporations compete, and that may imply we are able to spend extra on our satellites and probes and fewer on launching prices.”
It has not been a simple job, nevertheless. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher – which is able to ferry Crew Dragon into house – broke aside as soon as in flight and as soon as throughout a floor check. Boeing suffered quite a few software program failures throughout check missions of its Starliner, and solely flew in house, uncrewed, final December. Industrial launches had been deliberate for 2017 however are solely now set to happen.
Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon at the moment are standing at Kennedy’s launch pad 39A and may raise off for the house station on Wednesday. Ought to the mission be scrapped on the final minute, nevertheless, Boeing’s Starliner spaceship will then have the possibility to turn out to be the primary manned business spaceship.
And thereby hangs a story. Starliner shall be commanded by Charles Ferguson, who was commander of Atlantis on its final mission, and who was concerned in leaving the flag and message on the house station hatch.
Intriguingly, on that mission he was accompanied by Doug Hurley, who’s now the commander of Crew Dragon. Each males have remained within the US manned house programme and are rivals to convey again the flag, with Hurley in pole place. Ferguson stays unflustered. “No matter who would possibly get there first, it’s a win for America,” he says.
— to www.theguardian.com