A Private Route To Orbit

17:01 minutes

two men in space suit, flight gear on a landing pad. in the background is a rocket
NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken (right) participate in a dress rehearsal for launch at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 23, 2020, ahead of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011—and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend. 

a rocket on a launch pad on a cloudy day
The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft at Launch Complex 39A on May 27, 2020. Credit: NASA TV

The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments? 

Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news. 

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Segment Guests

Miriam Kramer

Miriam Kramer is a space reporter for Axios and host of “The Next Astronauts.” She’s based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Brendan Byrne

Brendan Byrne is a space reporter for WMFE and host of “Are We There Yet?” in Orlando, Florida.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. On Wednesday, SpaceX and NASA were forced to postpone a scheduled launch due to the weather. They’ll try it again this weekend. And if they are successful, the astronauts on board will be the first astronauts launched from the US since 2011– onboard a rocket– and this is the important part– a rocket designed and built, not by NASA, but by a private company– Elon Musk’s SpaceX. And it’s the Falcon 9 rocket.

It’s all part of a NASA program called Commercial Crew, developing ways powered by private industry to get astronauts to the International Space Station again. Joining me now to talk about the launch and other space-industry news are two space journalists– Miriam Kramer, who writes the “Space” newsletter for Axios and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for WMFE in Orlando. Thank you both for joining us.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Great to be here.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Miriam, how big a deal is this launch? Why are so many eyes on it?

MIRIAM KRAMER: Like you said, it’s the first launch of crew from the US in nine years. It also kind of represents this new era for NASA, where you have a company that’s basically responsible for putting astronauts’ lives in their hands and launching them to space. So it’s a big moment for all involved.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s been years in coming, hasn’t it?

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, it has. I mean, they were chosen for this, I think, in 2014. And they actually had years of work to develop their systems before that, so it’s been a long-time coming.

IRA FLATOW: And let’s talk about why it was postponed. It was postponed just a few moments before it was to be launched, right?

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, just inside of 17 minutes ahead of launch. The crew was already loaded into the capsule and the rocket was being fueled, but weather just forced them to just scrub the launch.

IRA FLATOW: And Brendan, you were at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday for the launch that was scrubbed. What was the mood there? Were people disappointed? Or were there enough veterans around to know, hey, you know, we’ll do it again.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Well, it was definitely wet. And yes, there was quite a bit of disappointment, as well. You gear up for this launch, and we got so close. And unfortunately, the weather wasn’t with us there. But the mood there, it was very emotional, Ira. And maybe you can relate to this, covering human launches, but this was the first human launch I covered. And there was this moment when Doug and Bob were driving to the launch pad. And they had to pass in front of the press site. And I didn’t realize that this was going to happen.

So I’m walking out there, looking at the pad. And these two drive by. And Doug has his window open, and he waves at us. And it was that moment that I realized, wow, this is a human launch. This is something that has never happened here in the past nine years, and we’re returning to this incredible moment in US spaceflight history. And I think for a lot of the journalists there, that was a very sobering moment, that this is real. This is happening.

IRA FLATOW: And Miriam, let’s talk about the how different things are with this rocket. At first I want to just say that I noticed that the space suits were totally different than we’re used to seeing, right? And the rocket is totally different than we’re used to seeing.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, definitely. So I think that one of the funnier things that Elon Musk said yesterday was that he wanted the suits to be functional but also look cool.

IRA FLATOW: From the movies– they were right out of the movies.

MIRIAM KRAMER: It looks very sci-fi. They’re very neat-looking suits. As far as the rocket goes, though, I’d say the most notable difference about the Falcon 9 is the fact that it’s reusable. The one that they were using yesterday, I believe, was a brand-new rocket. But the best part about these rockets is that they can actually come back in for a landing once they’ve set their payload on its journey into orbit. So the first booster comes back. It’s all incredibly sci-fi looking. To actually see it in person it’s pretty astounding, actually, to watch these like rockets come back in, break the sound barrier, and land on the ground again. So if the rocket had launched yesterday, what would have happened was, about 10 minutes after launch, the first booster would have come back in for a landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

IRA FLATOW: So who owns the rocket? Does SpaceX own the rocket? Is NASA buying sort of a car from SpaceX, like Elon Musk’s Tesla? Or are they calling an Uber, to sort of rent the rocket?

MIRIAM KRAMER: [LAUGHS] So I don’t know. It’s kind of funny. It’s somewhere in between, I think. But NASA is absolutely paying for the ride for their astronauts. It’s a lot cheaper than what they have been paying for rides on Soyuz spacecraft, which is on the order of about $80 million a seat. For the SpaceX rocket, it’s around $55 to $60 million a seat, for this kind of ride. So not cheap, but also much less expensive.

And it is a SpaceX rocket. This is their system. They developed it. They developed it in concert with NASA. But the idea is that they’re going to be using it for tourist flights and other types of flights to orbit, that aren’t just having to do with NASA astronauts and with the space station, necessarily. So they have basically this whole wide world of industry open to them now, in part because NASA helped them develop this rocket and spacecraft.

IRA FLATOW: Brendan, let’s look ahead for the flight plan. What’s the plan for the astronauts post-launch? How long will they be up there on the International Space Station?

BRENDAN BYRNE: So the original plan for this mission– this mission is called Demonstration Mission 2. It was supposed to be a test flight of the Crew Dragon vehicle with humans onboard, and Bob and Doug were set to go up to the space station and come back down just a few days afterwards. That plan has changed due to scheduling on the station and the available rides that NASA has. Right now there’s only a sole US occupant on the station– an astronaut by the name of Chris Cassidy. And we’re running out of rides from the Russian Space Agency.

So Bob and Doug have trained for this to be an operational mission. So along with learning how to fly a new space vehicle, of the Crew Dragon, the two went through kind of ISS astronaut training as well. So Bob did EVA work, to do some spacewalks. Doug was re-certified to operate the arm. There need to be some spacewalks while they’re up there. They’re able to do that. So right now we’re hearing that their stay will last anywhere between one-and-four months. So they’ll be able to kind of stuff up the station and give Chris a hand, so he’s not the only guy working up there for NASA.

IRA FLATOW: Miriam, where does this launch fit in with other private spaceflight development? Are there other players who will be watching here, or is SpaceX the only player going to the International Space Station now?

MIRIAM KRAMER: There are other players. So for the moment it’s just sort of SpaceX’s game. But hot on their heels is Boeing. They also got a contract with NASA to fly crew up to the space station. They had a bit of a troubled test flight in December, which due to a series of errors basically meant that the uncrewed capsule that they had launched was not able to dock to the space station. So this year they’re going to need to re-fly that mission, and see if they can pull it off without crew.

And only then will they be able to just sort of put crew onto the capsule. I think at the moment people are expecting that their first crewed flight won’t be until sometime in 2021. But they’ve been doing this development just as long as SpaceX, and I think that everyone’s pretty hopeful that they’ll get there. It’s just a little bit later than SpaceX has.

IRA FLATOW: And earlier this week there was another rocket test. This one was from Virgin Orbit. Tell us about that one.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, so Virgin Orbit had a very exciting first test flight for their rocket system. The unique thing about Virgin Orbit is that they actually fly a plane with a small rocket mounted under the wing. And once they get up to a certain altitude, they’re able to drop the rocket. The rocket ignites, and then it will bring payloads to orbit.

So this was their first test flight this week, and it didn’t quite go as planned. They were able to drop the rocket. The rocket ignited, but basically some error happened and the mission ended up failing. So the rocket kind of dropped into the ocean. But they say that they got a lot of good data from the flight, and they did accomplish a fair number of their goals with it. So we’ll just have to see sort of when they get back on that test-launch horse and launch their next one.

IRA FLATOW: They’re not aiming to carry human passengers, are they? They’re going for satellites in orbit.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, that’s right. And specifically, they’re going for the small satellite market, which a lot of industry folks are saying is potentially the next big thing for the space industry– are these smaller satellites that are in lower orbit. So Virgin Orbit is kind of trying to capture part of that market before other rocket companies are able to get in there first.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s talk even further ahead. Let’s talk about not staying in orbit around the Earth, but going to other planets. So what is the status, Brendan, about NASA’s own Space Launch system.

BRENDAN BYRNE: The Space Launch system is basically NASA’s mega-rocket. This is what’s going to take humans to deep space. And the Space Launch system is a key piece of NASA’s new moon shot, they’re calling Artemis. Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister. And the campaign will send humans to the Moon. The Trump administration has charged NASA with doing this by 2024, but the Space Launch system has been long delayed and over budget. But we are seeing it getting closer and closer to liftoff.

So the core stage of this rocket– you can see pictures of it. It’s the orange fuel tank and the four RS-25 rocket engines, which were used on the space shuttle. That is right now at a test facility awaiting what’s called the green run. So they’re going to try all of the brand-new systems in avionics and computers. They’re going to fuel it up, and they’re going to fire this puppy while it’s still attached to a test stand– just to make sure they’ve worked out all the kinks with it.

And then from there, it will come here to the Kennedy Space Center, where it will launch the Orion Crew capsule without a crew– this will be an uncrewed mission– on a mission around the Moon. And then following that, if that’s successful, there’ll be a crewed mission around the Moon– and then finally, a crewed mission to the lunar surface. So the Space Launch system is kind of this key piece of hardware that NASA needs to finish developing. The Orion capsule is ready to go.

And then one more key piece of hardware they need is a lunar lander. And NASA has awarded contracts to three kind of design groups to develop a plan to build these landers, and then eventually build these landers. So all of these things have to come together just right, so that they can make the lunar landing in the 2020s. But Space Launch system is moving ahead, and that will also launch from the Kennedy Space Center. And that’s going to be a big one. I cannot wait to see that when it gets here. So when it gets here is still unclear, but it’s very exciting to know that that’s on the horizon.

IRA FLATOW: And SpaceX was one of those companies that was awarded the option to design a lunar lander, was it not?

BRENDAN BYRNE: That’s right. Yeah, there were three companies. And SpaceX was kind of a surprise pick to a lot of us. SpaceX’s Starship was actually designed. It’s a single-stage lander, which is which is really cool. The three companies that were picked kind of had three different designs, which is intentional for NASA. There’s this kind of redundancy built into three different systems. So SpaceX’s is a single stage. There was a two-stage lander and a three-stage lander.

One of the organizations was a group of kind of spaceflight developers, led by Blue Origin– which as your listeners might know is headed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. So it’s very interesting to see all of these commercial players coming in, competing for this human-landing system– and to see three drastically different designs to the system. It gives NASA quite a few options and flexibility, because this Artemis program is moving ahead at such a rapid pace.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios. So Miriam, it looks like with private launch companies coming online that NASA’s role itself, or other government agencies– space agencies– is going to evolve.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Yeah, absolutely. And they want it to evolve. This is a moment for NASA to kind of redefine itself. And in many ways, I think it is something that’s been building since the end of the shuttle program and since the Bush administration, in general. NASA wants to be a buyer of services. It doesn’t want to constantly have to build its own rockets and build its own spacecraft and do everything for itself in low-Earth orbit– because they see that industry has gotten to the point where it’s mature enough that they’re able to actually buy these services from some companies.

So like they’re doing with SpaceX and like they want to do with Boeing, they want to open up the International Space Station to more commercial ventures– and maybe even shoot a movie with Tom Cruise on the space station. These are the kinds of things that they’re really talking about and really considering for the first time in the agency’s history. And it frees them up to maybe do those more ambitious missions that private companies are not suited for, like sending those missions to Mars and building a Moon base. And that kind of work that maybe eventually could be taken over by industry, but for now needs to be in the purview of a government.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about moving away from the Moon and heading out to Mars. Because there was really some interesting news this week about China preparing to carry out missions to Mars. I’m going to read a press release that says, “China is preparing to carry out eleven missions in two years, to construct a space station, and will soon select the new batch of astronauts for the project that’s close to Earth.” And then is also targeting a July launch for ambitious plans for Mars missions, which will include landing a remote-controlled robot on the surface.” They are not waiting for us.

BRENDAN BYRNE: No, they’re not. The Mars mission that’s on the horizon is pretty ambitious, too. They’re sending a orbiter/lander in July, which is really interesting. It’ll be their first solo interplanetary mission. That is going to be very, very exciting to see. It’s kind of laying the groundwork for this Martian exploration campaign. The orbiter is going to take some really great pictures– and observations from the orbit of the planet.

And then the lander will explore really interesting place on the surface and kind of prepare for a sample return mission, which is kind of the direction that the space agencies are going when it comes to Martian exploration. So this will definitely be one to keep an eye on, launching in July. China is very ambitious with its interplanetary exploration. And this is going to be a very, very exciting mission to watch.

IRA FLATOW: And so what time on Saturday are they expecting to try to launch this again?

MIRIAM KRAMER: I believe that’s 3:22 in the afternoon, right, Brendan?

BRENDAN BYRNE: 3:22 Eastern time. That’s correct.

IRA FLATOW: And you’ll be back there with your tuna-fish sandwich, I’m sure, waiting from the launch pad.


BRENDAN BYRNE: Yeah, that was the one thing that a veteran space journalist told me, was to make sure you pack a lunch. So I actually had two meals packed for the first attempt.

IRA FLATOW: This all looks very exciting. We will all look forward to the attempt again this weekend. I’d like to thank both of you. Miriam Kramer, who writes the “Space” newsletter for Axios. Brendan Byrne, a space reporter for WMFE in Orlando. Good luck to you guys this weekend.

BRENDAN BYRNE: Thank you, Ira.

MIRIAM KRAMER: Thanks so much. Thanks, Ira.

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