2011 marked the last time a United States spacecraft returned from a successful mission carrying astronauts onboard. Now, almost eight full years later, Americans plan to return to the heavens once more in their own manufactured space vessels. This Saturday, NASA in partnership with SpaceX is launching their Crew Dragon space capsule for a test run.
The United States has been using Russian spacecraft for missions for the past eight years, and NASA is eager to bring America’s space program back into the hands of Americans. With this test flight they hope to learn and accomplish necessary tests in order to someday bring astronauts back up in American vessels. No person shall be aboard the capsule during this test, yet it will show scientists key data in how humans will fair aboard in the future. The Crew Dragon capsule is planning on entering orbit around the Earth for a week, during that time it plans to dock with the International Space Station. On March 8th, the vessel then plans to delink and fall back to Earth where it will eventually parachute into the Atlantic Ocean.
These tests, if successful can lead the way to manned space flights in as early as the end of the year. Boeing is also trying their hand at making space vessels and their ship, the Starliner, plans to be ready for launch within the next month. Aboard the Crew Dragon is Ripley, an anthropomorphic test device, which will be monitoring forces of acceleration and other typical factors that a real astronaut would experience in a flight to space. The Crew Dragon has the ability to link with the ISS autonomously, without the need of another astronaut to be aboard the ISS that can grab and guide the vessel into place. SpaceX has been using the Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the ISS for years, but the new Crew Dragon is the first that plans to have astronauts as its cargo.
There are many risks and concerns that the crews both at NASA and SpaceX are planning for. Yet, the companies and agencies are excited to see just what works, and what does not work. Tests like these are key to the success of future missions, and seeing what can be improved on now can save a life in the future. Ripley will have a camera attached to it, allowing viewers to tune in and watch what an astronaut would see in a typical lift-off and what they see once orbiting the Earth in space.
In terms of commercial space agencies and vessels many believe that we are at “Wright brother moments” and, based on the success of the Crew Dragon and Starliner, we may be well on the cusp of a brand new space age.