On Saturday, SpaceX is expected to launch a historic flight to and from the International Space Station that will revolutionize space exploration, following an initial delay due to weather concerns.
“It’s hugely exciting,” Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, said of the launch — but he also said it comes with “enormous” liabilities.
On any given day, there are a variety of medical and safety risks that come with flying people into space, but this year NASA also had to protect their astronauts from the threat of COVID-19.
The SpaceX Demo-2 mission represents a milestone for the U.S., which has not returned to space since the final flight of the Atlantis closed out the space shuttle program in 2011. It will be manned by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, both of whom the space agency said were selected to be astronauts in the year 2000.
“We’re taking extra precautions,” Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a press call earlier this month, as reported by The Verge.
“We need to make sure we are separating people as much as possible.”
All over the world, people have been subject to quarantine measures designed to protect the healthy from becoming infected.
But for crews getting ready to launch, NASA said in a statement earlier this month, “‘flight crew health stabilization’ is a routine part of the final weeks before liftoff for all missions to the space station.”
They said Hurley and Behnken entered their pre-flight quarantine together on May 13, where they have been living with their crewmates in “tightly controlled” environments ahead of the launch, as their training makes them “unable to maintain a six-foot distance.”
Anyone interacting with members of the crew during the quarantine period were screened for temperature and symptoms, they said.
NASA added Hurley and Behnken, as well as those in direct or close contact with the crew, were tested twice for the virus as a precaution.
The most noticeable differences between this launch and past demos though, have little to do with the mission itself.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center has been largely shut down during the pandemic, and NASA has urged people to watch their livestreamed coverage of the launch, rather than cheer the astronauts on in person.
“Normally, there would be half a million people there to watch this launch,” Hadfield said, recalling large crowds that came out to greet him during his first launch in 1995.
Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Jeremy Hansen said he has seen a “small shift” in the astronauts who are preparing to fly.
At least for CSA astronauts, classroom sessions have been replaced with online sessions, certain training modules are delivered remotely and both astronauts and instructors in close quarters are required to wear masks.
But for the most part, Hansen, who is the next Canadian astronaut scheduled for space travel, said he couldn’t think of any changes.
“All of the risks are being managed exactly the same way they would be if we didn’t have COVID-19,” he said.
With that in mind, Hansen noted that there are a multitude of decisions that go into deciding if a rocket flies and there is no such thing as a “risk-free launch.”
The Crew Dragon spacecraft, for example, operates on a roughly 10-minute timeframe from engine ignition to orbit, and was delayed by atmospheric lightning concerns on Wednesday.
Hadfield told Global News there are many added risks to the mission, but his main concern was that no one has ever flown the spacecraft before.
“We don’t even really know what the risk is because we haven’t flown on it enough to be able to make an actuarially significant conclusion,” he said.
“Back in ’95, the odds were one in 38 of dying,” Hadfield said of his first mission. “But at the time, you don’t know because the vehicle’s still too new.”
It’s the ultimate test for a pilot, he said, but the new technology looks promising.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is the first of its kind, and could set the standard for future NASA missions if successful.
According to Hadfield, it’s “infinitely simpler and less expensive and a beautiful evolution of all the rockets done before.”
Hansen noted the capsule’s “robust” new abort system, which is expected to allow astronauts to safely eject themselves from their spacecraft.
SpaceX said in a press release in April they completed over 700 tests of the spacecraft’s SuperDraco engines, which can carry the Crew Dragon 0.5 miles away from Falcon 9 rocket in 7.5 seconds in the event of an emergency and accelerate it more than 400 mph.
Hadfield said he was also impressed by the speed at which space industrial science was developing, and hoped it would serve as a stepping stone to the commercialization of space, eventually creating a world where passengers could purchase a ticket on a spacecraft and travel around the world — not unlike the airliners of today.
“When I was born, no one had ever flown in space. All of this has happened in less than my lifetime,” said Hadfield.
“This isn’t an ending. This is the start.”