Is Boeing's crew capsule better than SpaceX

With the kind support of Elon Musk : The US is on its way back into space

It is the major event for US space travel: on Wednesday, astronauts will finally start again from their own territory into space. Since the end of the shuttle flights in July 2011, this has no longer been possible; NASA had to book expensive seats in the Russian “Soyuz” capsules.

For the flight to the International Space Station (ISS), Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, experienced test pilots and shuttle veterans, will take a seat in SpaceX's “Crew Dragon” spaceship. A chic vehicle with a lot of white and carbon inside and modern technology under the fairing.

The start, to which President Donald Trump will also be present - at least as a spectator - is a promise of a glorious future in which people will land on the moon again as early as 2024 and soon also fly to Mars, if one respects the assurances of the US government and her space agency believes.

Restrained cheers

But the cheering mood is clouded: The NASA manager for manned space flight, Douglas Loverro, resigned just a few days before the start. The exact causes are not known, but the indications show that there is great pressure and little team spirit within the management.

In addition, NASA has called for the pandemic to follow the start at home on the screen instead of making a pilgrimage to the “Space Coast” in Florida. Since the Apollo era, the Kennedy Space Center area has been a popular destination to personally watch the rockets thunder into the sky. How many stick to it remains to be seen.

When the new capsule, mounted on a Falcon 9 rocket, takes off as planned at 10:33 p.m. (CEST), its final series of tests will begin. Formally, it is not a supply flight to the ISS, but a test flight for Crew Dragon in order to obtain the final approval for regular shuttle operation for astronauts between earth and station. If everything goes according to plan, it could start in September - after a decade and a half of preparation.

Since the space shuttles could not be operated as cheaply as they had hoped, NASA started a program in 2006 in which companies, with considerable financial support, develop rockets and spaceships to bring supplies and later also astronauts to the near-earth area where the ISS orbits. Nasa, in turn, so the idea, would only buy these transport services and instead use its strength to prepare missions to more distant destinations such as the moon and Mars.

The goods were transported relatively quickly, and in 2012 the first transporter (“Dragon” from SpaceX) reached the station. From 2015, it was hoped, astronauts will start again. Until then, the Americans would fly with the Russians in the "Soyuz" capsules. Now, five years later than planned, “Crew Dragon” is ready to go. SpaceX received $ 3.1 billion for the development from NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Boeing even received $ 4.8 billion, but its "CST-100 Starliner" spacecraft had a number of technical problems during an unmanned test flight in December 2019 and must first repeat them before a test with crew can take place. The three astronauts selected for this have to be patient.

Two experienced space shuttle astronauts are the first to ride kites

For Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, things are now getting serious. From the famous launch complex 39 A, where both left the earth several times with the space shuttle, Hurley even on the last flight ever on July 8, 2011, they are supposed to ascend into the sky.

But this time a lot is different. Because of Covid-19, there are strict safety regulations. The two astronauts have been in quarantine since May 13th and had only limited contact with others in the previous period - they should stay healthy and under no circumstances bring the corona virus to the station. At first, the families should not, as usual, be able to watch the launch at the Kennedy Space Center. Now they have also gone into quarantine and will still see the two space travelers, as Behnken announced after his arrival in Florida on Wednesday.

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In any case, the two have to do without the legendary Astrovan: the rolling tin can with which the US space travelers drove the last few kilometers to the launch pad. Instead, a Model X from Tesla is available; the car company belongs to Elon Musk, who is also the boss of SpaceX. The launch tower and the gangway to the capsule - the area was leased from SpaceX - are futuristic, and even more so, "Crew Dragon" itself.

Pictures and videos that have been published show: The interior offers a lot of space, compared to the robust but narrow “Soyuz” capsules, it is a cathedral. Cool white is combined with a carbon look, touchscreens hang down from above, even the spacesuits and helmets have been designed to match.

Nevertheless, it is crucial that the capsule, which is designed for up to seven people, flies reliably. Control and docking can be automated or from the control center. The astronauts can also intervene and control them by hand. Hurley and Behnken will test this before docking with the ISS one day later.

Crew Dragon will bring the US flag from the ISS

A special trophy is waiting there: with the last shuttle flight, a US flag was brought to the station that was already in space with the first space shuttle. Back in 2011, President Obama said in a phone call with the crew that the flag should stay there until a company brought astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX had immediately announced that it would accept the bet and be on its way. The technology magazine "Ars Technica" now asked Hurley whether he would grab the emblematic cloth. "We'll probably get them," he replied, "stow them safely and bring them back to earth."

The exact date for the return flight has not yet been set. It depends on when the first regular flight can take place - which in turn depends on the results of the test flight. The next team is expected to come in September and Behnken and Hurley cast off beforehand, so that they can finally parachute down over the Atlantic.

The final test mission comes very late for NASA. With every delay she was forced to buy more flight opportunities in the Russian "Soyuz" capsules. The Russian agency, the only provider of flights to the ISS, regularly raised prices and recently asked for around 90 million dollars for a seat. This is also one of the reasons why only three astronauts have lived on the station since February, although it is usually occupied by six. The planning assumed that SpaceX would be ready to go earlier, around the end of 2019, but the test series was delayed.

"You could have closed the gap with an extra 'Soyuz' flight, but that would have put additional strain on the NASA budget," says Volker Schmid, who is responsible for the ISS program in the space management of the German Aerospace Center. The loss for science - three people have a lot to do with on-board routines and hardly get to research - is justifiable. "There is a little less research, but that will be made up for when six crew members are back in the station soon."

"Crew Dragon" is also important for German and European ISS activities, adds Schmid. Since there are two different flight options, the schedule is more stable and possible failures can be better compensated for. With Matthias Maurer, a German will soon be flying to the ISS again for six months. Whether with “Crew Dragon” or Boeing's “Starliner” has not yet been determined, according to Esa, who works for Maurer. Its start date is numbered “not before mid-2021”. “It is likely that this will be postponed by a few months,” says Schmid. "There are more delays in space travel and now there is the corona pandemic."

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The travel and distance restrictions were just as difficult for suppliers as they were for space agencies. He hopes that the costs of the pandemic will not affect future space budgets and warns against saving on the development of future technologies.

Against this background, the moon landing planned by US astronauts for 2024 appears increasingly unrealistic. But they should at least make it to the ISS. Hopefully.

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