Another Step towards Making Humans a Multi planetary Species

Falcon 9 rocket at Kennedy Space Center launch at Complex 39 A

May 30, 2020 at 3:22 pm ET marked the launch of Falcon 9- the first orbital class rocket capable of re-flight. This is a huge achievement as it is a step towards pursuing our dream of colonizing Mars. What makes this project unique, is that its the first launch of NASA astronauts from the United States soil ,after the retirement of the space shuttle program 9 years back. Falcon 9 is the first reusable rocket allowing it to re-fly the expensive parts of the rocket. This feature in turn drives the cost down making the vision of commercial space travel a reality in a not too distant future. The rocket can also be refueled in orbit making it more practical for commercial space travel.

The first two astronauts with Falcon 9 flight privileges are Robert L. Behnken and Doughlas O. Hurley. Both of them have experience in space shuttle mission flying twice. However, it is the first time they are working together on the same mission with Falcon 9.

Doughlas O. Hurley
Robert L. Behnken
Doughlas O. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken waving at their family before being driven by Tesla car to the Cape Canaveral launchpad

Once the astronauts boarded the Crew Dragon capsule, a series of procedures were carried out to ensure the safety of the launch and the astronauts. The escape system specifically designed for the rocket can separate the Dragon capsule from the Falcon’s engine and project it on to the shore at a safer distance. There was also a trained dedicated rescue team for this purpose and in case anything goes unprecedented their job would be to rush and rescue the astronauts from the shore. Thankfully there was no such incident and the launch was a complete successful despite speculations of disruptions for a bad weather.

Inside the Dragon Capsule

The Dragon capsule have been used to transport cargo to space but this is its first attempt to carry human subjects. The capsule is made of carbon fiber and the choice of the material was for its high tensile strength, light weight, high temperature tolerance and high stiffness- all of which compliment the purpose of a space shuttle launch. Though the capsule could accommodate up to 7 astronauts but for its initial launch it tested with only two astronauts, Douglas and Robert. The capsule was fully autonomous but it also allowed manual intervention.There were three touch screen displays and safety escape option in case there was an accident.

The Dragon capsule prior to its launch on 30th May, 2020

The space suit has also been carefully engineered to ensure the safety and functionality of the launch. It had a 3D printed helmet, flame resistant suit, touchscreen compatible gloves and hearing protection during the launch and descending. The astronauts suits were checked for pressure and other leaks three hours prior to their boarding on the capsule. There were also additional challenges including propulsion landing on Mars. Because of the atmospheric difference between Mars, Moon and Earth, the design for the landing procedure needs to be accommodated accordingly.

Merlin : The Falcon 9 rocket engine

The rocket engine developed by SpaceX for Falcon 9 is Merlin. The primary aim is its reusability and recovery. This event will allow scope for such future commercial mission to Mars or outer space . The model of driving down the cost and increasing reliability has its advantage in increasing the frequency of trips to outer space by many of us common individuals.

The fueling began at 35 minutes prior to launch. It used RP-1 ( rocket grade kerosene) and liquid oxygen as rocket propellants. It was able to generate 845kN of upthrust force and traveling at a speed of 17000 miles/hour. The launch was a 9 min ride to the orbit and after a 19 hour flight they are scheduled to dock at the International Space Station on Sunday 31st May, 2020.

Countdown to Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center
The main engine is cut off after 2.5 minutes and it is the view from the Falcon 9 as it makes its way to the orbit.

The success of Falcon 9 and its launch is a historic day for the United States because it is a step towards making space travel cheaper and more reliable for commercial applications. Perhaps Star Trek is not a vision of the past, it will become a reality in the future.

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