SpaceX rocket carries astronauts to ISS

A private company has launched humans into orbit for the first time. What does this mean for space travel?
08 June 2020

Interview with 

Victoria Gill, BBC


The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in orbit.


On the 30th of May, just after 7.20pm GMT, a SpaceX rocket launched two NASA astronauts into orbit. They’re now safely aboard the International Space Station. 10 million people watched the launch live - the first time ever that a private company has flown humans into orbit. To find out what that might mean, Katie Haylor spoke to BBC science and environment correspondent Victoria Gill...

Victoria - The cool thing about this particular spacecraft, about the Crew Dragon capsule, is that that whole journey was fully automated. Basically the capsule's kind of pre-programmed, it knows its way to the International Space Station. So the plan was for the two astronauts, Bob and Doug, to not do anything, they would just have to sort of monitor all of the systems. Then the plan is for the future for it to operate like a space taxi. They even talked about being able to get some sleep while they were on their way up there. So it appears that all of the instruments in the navigation and everything that was automated worked as it should.

Katie - Wow, so it went pretty well then!

Victoria - Seems that way, yes. If you've watched any of these test launches, there's just cameras absolutely geared up to watching and sharing, and kind of bigging themselves up to the whole world. So it's an incredible thing to watch. But one thing that you could watch was the astronaut’s-eye view from inside the capsule. And it's interesting because the instrumentation panels are all just touchscreen. These spacesuits were designed with the help of Jose Fernandez; he designed some Hollywood costumes for some of the superhero comic movies, and so they look pretty much like that. They look very futuristic and kind of strange, and they've had a lot of attention. Their gloves are actually touch screen sensitive. So it was quite an amazing, pretty futuristic looking view from inside the capsule. And it just seems to have gone very smoothly and even docked automatically as well.

Katie - If it's automated then are the astronauts kind of practicing when they're in there? Do they... I'm guessing they need to know how to take over in the event of an emergency, right?

Victoria - Absolutely that. They need astronauts on board that are going to be able to take over and manually operate this space capsule if anything goes wrong.

Katie - How significant is it that this spacecraft was commercially made?

Victoria - I was actually speaking to Tim Peake, British astronaut who was like most of us locked down at home, watching this launch very excitedly and nervously over the weekend. This was the start of a new commercial era in space travel, as he was telling me.

Tim - Since the shuttle retired in 2011, we've been relying on just the Soyuz rocket. And whenever you have a space program you don't want to rely on just one vehicle. I mean, in that period of time the Soyuz has had a couple of problems and it's left us in a very vulnerable situation. So now we have redundancy, which is great. But also, of course, last night's launch and the success of this mission will pave the way for Europeans to be able to go to space on that vehicle in the future.

Katie - Are there other players besides SpaceX at this kind of level?

Victoria - So the two main ones now are SpaceX and Boeing, and for the European Space Agency, the next flights for their astronauts are going to be hopefully aboard the Boeing Starliner. This is a big contract and a big point in an important commercial relationship between NASA and SpaceX. So 2.6 billion pounds transportation contract, that basically means that they can get astronauts to the ISS and hopefully back from the ISS; obviously that's the next part of the round trip. But it's significant that SpaceX got there first. And I think Elon Musk, enigmatic tech billionaire that he is, was crowing reasonably loudly about that.

Katie - Is the idea to reuse this system?

Victoria - That is a big USP for SpaceX, is reusable rockets. And it's been something that Elon Musk has been very vocal about: that space travel, as mindblowingly expensive as it is, a lot of money can be saved if we're not just throwing away these incredibly expensive propulsion systems. That's a big part of what they want to do. And they do seem to have been successful at least in testing it. So now they can move forward into fulfilling the part of that contract where NASA get what they want out of it, which is basically the time and resources to spend going, as Tim Peake says, beyond to the moon and to Mars.

Tim - What the national space agencies would like to do, of course, is to slowly hand over operation of the entire International Space Station to commercial companies, and for them to be a customer themselves. So SpaceX is a model which we're using to try and embrace for low-Earth orbit. And what that does is it frees up the space agencies to go on with exploration to the moon and Mars. So we've already taken that same partnership that we have with the International Space Station, and that same group of nations are planning a new space station to go in orbit around the moon, which will help to facilitate lunar landings in the mid to the late twenties.


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