Prove your humanity

On May 30, NASA and SpaceX launched astronauts from American facilities for the first time in nine years. The flight, part of the Commercial Crew Program, was a success. It was the culmination of many years of research and design of new state-of-the-art rocket technology.

Aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft were astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Both are veterans of the American space program, having joined NASA in 2000. Hurley was actually part of the last space shuttle flight in 2011. The two had been training for the mission for the last two years.

As the space shuttle fleet were winding down after 30 years of service, NASA was looking for new ways of getting Americans to orbit, as well as lowering the cost of doing so. The answer was the Commercial Crew Program. The idea was that NASA would pay aerospace companies to use their rockets to ferry people back and forth from the International Space Station (ISS).

The program went to tender in 2010 and was awarded to SpaceX and Boeing. NASA funded and worked closely with each company, developing human-rated capsules that would sit upon a rocket. Each company worked independently of the other. It was done this way to ensure one company wouldn’t have monopoly of the market and to add a backup to the program where NASA didn’t have to rely solely on one provider.

SpaceX emerged with the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It’s a continuation of their Cargo Dragon craft, which regularly resupplies the ISS. Boeing produced the CST-100 Starliner. Both spacecraft have been rigorously tested on Earth and have flown to orbit.

In March 2019, an un-crewed Crew Dragon was launched to the ISS. There it spent five days docked while it was examined and tested further by astronauts and ground personnel. The mission was a success and paved the way for Hurley and Behnken’s flight.

Starliner had a similar mission in December of last year. Unfortunately, there was a major software issue with the craft and it couldn’t catch up to the ISS. The incident caused its crewed flight to be delayed while engineers fixed the problem.

While the Crew Dragon and Starliner were being developed, American astronauts travelled to space via Russian Soyuz rockets. Before the space shuttles were retired, it cost NASA nearly US$22 million per astronaut to be on a Soyuz with a Russian crew. After 2011, that figure jumped to US$81 million for a ride.

NASA will pay around US$55 million per astronaut per flight to use the Crew Dragon.

Hurley and Behnken’s Crew Dragon mission was originally scheduled for May 27 but was scrubbed due to bad weather. The spacecraft is likely to return from the ISS in late August. More flights have already been planned for the near future.