2019 may finally be the year when American astronauts launch to orbit from American soil again, ending an eight-year drought that started when NASA’s Space Shuttle program shut down in 2011. The inaugural flights of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program are slated to take place in the coming months, and the launches will see privately owned vehicles carrying space agency astronauts for the very first time. If the current schedules hold, California-based SpaceX may be the first one to send its vehicle to space with two NASA astronauts on board.
For this Verge Science video, we visited SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, to meet those astronauts and see what one possible future of American crewed spaceflight looks like.
2019 may finally be the year when American astronauts launch to orbit from American soil again
Both SpaceX and its competitor, aerospace company Boeing, have been tasked by NASA to develop new space capsules that can carry crews to and from low Earth orbit. Boeing created a new vehicle from scratch: the CST-100 Starliner. SpaceX, on the other hand, has been upgrading its Dragon cargo capsule, which is already used to transport supplies to and from the International Space Station. For the last five years, the company has been modifying it to carry much more precious cargo: astronauts.
The end goal for the Commercial Crew Program is to have two new American vehicles that are capable of taking NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station regularly. It’d bring human spaceflight home for NASA. Since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to transport the agency’s astronauts and international partners to the ISS. And by relying on private companies, NASA is getting what it needs while helping to stimulate development in the commercial space industry. Both SpaceX and Boeing are shouldering some of the development costs, too. That will potentially make things much cheaper for NASA than if the space agency oversaw everything directly.
Image: SpaceX / Boeing / Alex Parkin
Artistic renderings of SpaceX and Boeing’s Commercial Crew capsules.
In August, NASA announced the first nine US astronauts who will ride on SpaceX and Boeing’s vehicles. If target launch dates stay relatively the same, then the first two people to fly for the Commercial Crew Program will be Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, two veteran NASA fliers who are slated to ride on the first crewed flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Right now, they’re aiming to fly in the Crew Dragon on a two-week trip to the International Space Station as part of a test mission to see if the vehicle is ready for crew. Perched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon will carry them to orbit, dock with the ISS, and then eventually depart and return to Earth where they’ll splash down in the ocean.
“You’re learning how to live with that vehicle in space.”
Both Behnken and Hurley flew on NASA’s Space Shuttle, but now they’re training for an entirely new vehicle. Since the Crew Dragon is ultimately SpaceX’s vehicle, that means SpaceX is also responsible for training people how to use the capsule. Though it’s a new process, the astronauts say they haven’t experienced many drastic changes in their training regimens.
“Training for a vehicle has its similarities, whether it’s an airplane, a car,” Behnken tells The Verge. “Obviously, it’s a little easier to drive a car than maybe a spaceship. But I mean, you’re learning the systems, you’re learning how to interact with the vehicle, and then you’re also learning to deal with malfunctions if they occur. You’re learning how to live with that vehicle in space.”
Photo by Loren Grush / The Verge
The Crew Dragon capsule simulator at SpaceX’s headquarters.
SpaceX built capsule simulators at its headquarters to prepare astronauts for what they might experience on the trip to space. These machines re-create the interior of the capsule, including the chairs, hatch, and touchscreens they’ll use to monitor the flight. It’s a far cry from the Space Shuttle’s design, which had thousands of switches and circuit breakers in the cockpit. Ultimately, minimal input from the crew will be needed on a normal trip of the Crew Dragon, though it is designed for astronauts to step in if necessary. A big part of the training process is going over every little detail that could go wrong so that crews know how to step in and fix an issue if necessary.
Behnken and Hurley travel from their homes to SpaceX’s headquarters every other week or so to train, and they’ll continue to do so up until their flight. That mission, called DM-2, is tentatively scheduled for June 2019. But before the trip can happen, SpaceX must fly the Crew Dragon without a crew as part of a test mission called DM-1. The date of DM-1 keeps moving back. NASA set a date for January 7th, and then pushed to January 17th. Recently, the space agency announced that DM-1 is happening in February, a delay that many assumed was related to the ongoing government shutdown. However, the Commercial Crew Program seems to be operating at relatively normal staffing levels as it is considered crucial to NASA’s mission, according to a person familiar with the matter. And NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs confirmed to The Verge that the “announcement about the move into February and the government furlough were unrelated.”
both Behnken and Hurley say that they have to be flexible when it comes to planning their lives
Since the dates are so unpredictable, both Behnken and Hurley say that they have to be flexible when it comes to planning their lives. It was similar during the Space Shuttle program, too. But they say they know what their schedule is in two-week increments, and it’s been that way ever since they were selected as the first to fly with Commercial Crew. “We kind of plan for multiple things almost all of the time, and just do the thing that we can do that particular week,” says Behnken. “Whether that’s a family vacation or a rocket launch, we may have both of them scheduled for the same time frame, and we’ll just do the one that has the priority at that time. Usually, the rocket launch wins.”
Above all, NASA wants to make sure the vehicles are ready and the safest they can be before flight. Once Crew Dragon flies empty for the first time, the space agency will evaluate the success of the mission before giving the go-ahead to fly crew. That means it’s still very much a question of when Behnken and Hurley will fly and if they’ll be the first people to make it to space with the Commercial Crew Program. If Boeing surpasses SpaceX, the Starliner’s first passengers will be a trio: NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann, as well as former astronaut and Boeing employee Chris Ferguson. But for the two astronauts who are slated to fly with SpaceX, being first isn’t what matters most. It’s getting to take off from Florida like they used to.
“I would be happy to be on either vehicle just to have that opportunity again,” says Behnken.