Back in the day, there were two nations competing for “space supremacy” – the Soviet Union and the United States of America. The former has claimed the honour of sending the first object to Earth’s orbit, and the first human, too. The latter has achieved one of the biggest feats in the history of space travel: successfully landing humans on the surface of the Moon and bringing them back from there alive (remember, it was the 1960s!). In time, the number of organizations capable of launching a spacecraft started to grow with the addition of the European Space Agency (ESA) founded in 1975, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) founded in 1993, and several others that are capable of launching objects into space. Objects, mind you, not humans: right now, Russia’s Roscosmos is the only space agency capable of launching humans into space.
This will, in turn, change in the near future. There are several companies that spearhead the development of commercial space travel, including Boeing and its CST-100 vehicle, Blue Origin, and of course SpaceX, the space startup founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk. Right now, the latter seems to be the closest to becoming the first private entity to send a human to low Earth orbit. And its successful Crew Dragon abort test, completed a few days ago, takes it even closer to the proverbial finish line.
Where no private space company has gone before
Last year, the Crew Dragon capsule was used in a mission that was critical to advancing SpaceX’s project to take a human into low Earth orbit: on March 3, it successfully docked with the International Space Station. This was an important milestone for another reason: it was the first capsule to do so automatically. At the time, it only had one “passenger” – Ripley, a test device with a human form meant to test what forces will act on an astronaut’s spine, head, and neck. This was the first obstacle the company had to overcome – but by far, not the last.
When you are strapped to the tip of a giant metal tube with tonnes of fuel in it, preparing to fly to orbit, you don’t want anything to go wrong – this is why the in-flight abort system is vital to any manned space mission. And this system was the one tested by SpaceX this January. The IFA is meant to trigger when something goes wrong, firing the eight Super Draco engines mounted on the capsule to move it away from the rocket itself and then deploy a set of parachutes that ensure the safe landing of the astronauts – all this before the rocket itself explodes.
The test was successful – now all that remains is to analyze the data collected during the flight (and, of course, the capsule itself) before they can proceed with the first humans sent into space on board a SpaceX rocket.
The first SpaceX astronauts
Now, the only question that remains is when can SpaceX launch its first manned mission?
If all goes well, the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission will happen this April. NASA astronaut Douglas G. Hurley (at his third space flight) will be the mission commander, joined by NASA pilot Robert L. Behnken (also at his third). If all goes well, this 14-day round trip to the International Space Station will be the first manned space flight completed by an American vehicle since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011.