Launch of a new era of space flight

Launch of a new era of space flight

The SpaceX flight carrying two NASA astronauts has successfully docked at the international space station, marking a new era in human space travel, as RMIT aerospace experts explain.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission launched two NASA astronauts for the first time in a capsule called Dragon on the Falcon 9 reusable rocket. 

A first attempt was halted due to bad weather, delaying the launch for astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.

Senior lecturer in Aerospace Engineering Dr Graham Dorrington said the mission marked the start of a promising new era.

“The Dragon capsule has docked, and the crew are now on board the International Space Station, the largest and most expensive spacecraft ever built, which flies over Australia every day,” he said.

“But this demonstration mission is not over until the capsule re-enters and is recovered,” he added.

For nearly a decade, NASA has lacked any means of launching astronauts into orbit from the US. 

SpaceX photos SpaceX Demo-2 astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Credit: Official SpaceX photos

“We have waited 38-years for an all-new launcher design capable of transporting humans to orbit,” Dorrington said.

“It's not yet clear that this system and its commercial mode of operation will offer major cost reductions and reliability improvements.

However, if fully successful, the launch could represent a watershed event leading to a new era of international space exploration, he noted.

It's SpaceX’s final test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and will provide critical data toward certification of SpaceX’s crew transportation system for regular flights carrying astronauts to and from the space station.

RMIT aerospace engineer and aerospace system design expert Professor Cees Bil said it was a momentous step.

“At the occasion of the landing of the last space shuttle flight in 2011, with SpaceX Demo-2 astronaut Doug Hurley onboard, then US President Barack Obama said: “The last space shuttle launch ends one era, but opens another”, he said.

SpaceX photos The SpaceX rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Official SpaceX photos

“That new era is upon us after SpaceX launched its Demo-2 mission with two astronauts on board the Dragon capsule, marking the return to US human space flight.

It’s been about nine years since they had the capability to put astronauts into space.

“It must have been a bit of  a sore point for the US when they had to mothball the space shuttle fleet without an immediate replacement,” he said.

“They’ve been trying hard over the years to outsource the regular launch capability to commercial companies so that NASA can focus more on research.

Bil said commercialisation was driving the technology forward.

“If you compare the technology of the previous space shuttles, they were very large, due to cargo requirements, and inherently riskier, with the orbiter next to the fuel tank, while the current design is much lighter and scaled down,” he said.

"The design is safer, with the capsule placed on top of the launch vehicle rather than on the side, as was the case with the space shuttle, with an integrated launch escape system," he added.

“The Falcon/Dragon design is not only a leap forward in technology, but also a new business paradigm with commercial launch service providers competing for business.”


Story: Diana Robertson

31 May 2020


31 May 2020


  • Science and technology
  • Aerospace & Aviation

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