NASA, along with SpaceX, was about to launch their first full-fledged human mission using a privately owned spacecraft. The liftoff time was initially slated for Saturday but has now been postponed. It will now take place at 7:27 pm Eastern Time on Sunday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX Delays Historic Launch Due To Poor Weather
The delay occurred due to forecasts of gusty, onshore wind over Florida. The weather would have made a return landing for the Falcon 9 rocket’s reusable booster stage difficult. SpaceX’s newly designed Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed “Resilience” is considered to be their first ‘operational’ mission.
Crew Dragon Capsule
In May this year, SpaceX had launched a test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) along with two astronauts. The mission was supposed to wring out any problems with the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. The mission was considered to be a success, with no issues encountered at the time.
Now that NASA has adjudged the mission a success, SpaceX can move forward to making regular flights to the ISS. These missions will consist of full contingents of astronauts for extended stays. The launch that will take place tomorrow, taking 3 American and 1 Japanese astronaut to the space station. The mission commander Mike Hopkins, a US Air Force colonel, will be joined by Victor Glover and Shannon Walker on the launch. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will be making his third trip to outer space, after flying on the US space shuttle in 2005 and Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2009.
This launch will be historic, as it will be NASA’s first operational flight in a privately-owned spacecraft. SpaceX hopes to make this the first of many such flights, as they look to normalize going to the space station regularly. The build-up to this unprecedented flight, however, is anything but normal.
Saturday’s launch was thrown into doubt after SpaceX and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted that he had tested positive twice for coronavirus. Surprisingly enough, he was also tested negative twice on the same day. Nevertheless, SpaceX and NASA quickly sprung into action, trying to establish links of direct physical contact between him and the astronauts.
Something extremely bogus is going on. Was tested for covid four times today. Two tests came back negative, two came back positive. Same machine, same test, same nurse. Rapid antigen test from BD.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 13, 2020
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine then stated that no mission essential personnel had been in touch with Musk. The first obstacle was avoided eventually, and both SpaceX and NASA were confident of a successful launch on Saturday.
The optimism was short-lived though, as weather forecasters predicted that conditions offshore were most probably going to be too rough for the recovery of the rocket’s boosters.
SpaceX’s Fairing Recovery Technology
SpaceX has always looked to revolutionize the aerospace industry, just like Tesla has done in the automotive industry. Considering that Elon Musk is at the helm of both companies, this does not come as a surprise. One of the innovative pieces of technology is the fairing recovery system for the Falcon 9 rocket.
In August this year, Elon Musk had shared a video that showed the fairings of the Falcon 9 rocket being recovered by catching them before they hit the sea. The fairings are used to protect the satellites and are then ejected after the rocket has escaped the atmosphere.
The ejected fairings have an Autopilot system installed inside, which allows them to be navigated to the designated pick-up spot using small thrusters. As the fairings reach near the spot, parachutes are deployed, and they are recovered into huge nets onboard large and fast ships.
This bit of technology allows SpaceX to reuse these payload fairings, which cost almost 10% of the total cost of the Falcon 9 rocket. These fairings are an expensive piece of technology, and SpaceX understands the need to recover and reuse them. This is something NASA hadn’t thought of earlier and makes SpaceX a big player in the aerospace industry.
The Challenges In The Aerospace Industry
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell had stated once that a successful launch requires a million things to go right. At the same time, just one thing going wrong can jeopardize the entire mission. SpaceX has gone through a series of failures with the Falcon 9, as it has exploded twice – in 2015 and 2016. Last year, the Dragon capsule exploded during an abort engine test. Last month, the rocket’s sensors noticed a problem, and autonomously aborted the flight two seconds before liftoff.
The success of the Crew Dragon capsule launch in May has given SpaceX and NASA a lot of confidence going forward. NASA has talked a lot about mutual trust between them and SpaceX. NASA has never reused fairings before, and if this launch is successful, and its fairings are recovered properly, then they will be reused for another launch in March 2021.
Recently, NASA stated that this launch will be the aerospace industry’s move into a new era. With SpaceX becoming the first private company to provide spacecraft, the aerospace industry is looking to expand quickly. This mission will take a lot of steps in the right direction for the industry. With SpaceX and Boeing getting contracts for spacecraft production from NASA, there will be a competition too. Boeing is set to launch a crewed mission later this year. This kind of healthy competition and a feeling of trust established by NASA will definitely help. The aerospace industry is not far away from being revolutionized.