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A NASA mission like no other: SpaceX makes spaceflight modern again




Crew Dragon on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida prior to launch.

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Hundreds of humans have been launched into space over the past six decades. But when NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken blast off from Florida’s Cape Canveral in a SpaceX Crew Dragon Wednesday, they’ll be the first to leave the planet in a truly modern vehicle — at least in the 21st century sense of the phrase. 

Behnken and Hurley are set to ride the Dragon for what NASA is calling its Demo-2 mission, the first crewed flight to space aboard a commercial spacecraft in history and the first from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. 

While NASA and SpaceX are touting these big milestones, there’s another key advance getting less lip service: astronauts are finally flying in style after a 40-year gap in tech. 

Over the last 39 years, almost all trips to space have been made on just two types of spacecraft: the workhorse Soviet/Russian Soyuz system and NASA’s Space Shuttle (the exception is the Chinese space program, which has conducted six crewed launches of its Shenzhou spacecraft since 2003).

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That means for almost four decades we have been strapping some of the most impressive individuals our species has to offer into vehicles designed in the 1970s and sending them into the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space.

Just imagine you’ve trained your entire life, dedicated yourself to becoming a leader at the top of your field and on the day you’re to begin the most important project of your career, you’re picked up outside your office by a weathered 1972 Ford Bronco.

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No disrespect to the venerable Bronco or the space shuttle, both of which have proved their worth over many millions of miles traveled. But when you look at the cockpit of the space shuttle, it feels… old. There are buttons and switches and monitors that I swear NASA stole from my first Apple IIe computer. It feels completely insane and dated to think that as the iPhone and iPad were on the rise over a decade ago, this is still what we were using to go to space. 


The cockpit of space shuttle Discovery before its final power down.

NASA/Ken Thornsley

In NASA’s defense, it’s not like there wasn’t good reason to stick with the old hardware for so long. Astronauts have trained on those systems for years.  

But finally, for the first time in nearly two generations, astronauts will be leaving Earth in a new vehicle with modern systems we take for granted, including touchscreens and automation. None of this should come as any surprise given that Tesla is SpaceX’s sister company.

Behnken and Hurley have worked with SpaceX over the past half decade to help develop the interface they would use to manually pilot Crew Dragon, which they plan to demonstrate during their rendezvous with the International Space Station later this week. Gone is the joystick both astronauts are familiar with from earlier flights in their careers on the Space Shuttle, replaced entirely by screens and spacesuits with touchscreen-friendly fingertips.

“On their touchscreen displays, they have a software interface where they will be able to control the roll, the pitch, the yaw,” explains Zebulon Scoville, Demo-2’s lead flight director, on a recent NASA podcast.

Last year NASA found itself with a little egg on its face when it had to put off its first ever all-female spacewalk outside the ISS because there weren’t enough properly-sized space suits available. No such wardrobe worries aboard Crew Dragon, where each SpaceX spacesuit is custom made and helmets are custom manufactured using 3D printing. Hurley told reporters recently how the duds worn aboard the space shuttle compare to the new custom suits.

“It was quite a bit more bulky and it was kind of sized generically rather than these particular suits for SpaceX.”

And of course there are the upgrades to the most important hardware. Dragon could fly the whole mission autonomously, the Falcon 9 rocket that will boost Hurley and Behnken beyond Earth’s gravity well will land autonomously on a landing pad at sea, itself also autonomous. Even the car that will drive the astronauts to the launch pad — a Tesla of course — is capable of autonomous driving. It’s quite the technological step up from the “Astrovan” (actually a modified Airstream trailer) that had traditionally chaffeured astronauts pre-launch.

“It’s something we maybe dreamed about when we were new [astronaut candidates] — flying something other than the space shuttle,” Behnken said. “It did not seem likely at the time when we arrived at the astronaut office … so I think we’re living the dream.”

It took twenty years, but after this week we’ll finally be able to say that human spaceflight has entered the 21st century. 

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