The launch of Dragon. Photo Credit: AP
Space X launch with humans on board shows that some things never change, and some things really do.
I watched with great interest this past weekend the launch of the Demo-2 Test Flight, better known as the “Space X rocket carrying American astronauts from American soil after a nine-year hiatus” launch. I was traveling during the event and so was in an airport during the final phases of the countdown and the spectacular liftoff. While I marveled at the technology that made the launch possible, I also had to marvel at my use of technology to watch it. I was streaming the NASA feed in hi-def on my computer after a camera in Cape Canaveral turned the images into ones and zeroes and then bounced a radio signal containing them off of a satellite 22,000 miles from earth, after which they zipped through a data network before being re-assembled into moving images on my screen in Albuquerque’s airport. It’s enough to make you lay awake at night and marvel at what humans can do.
Of course, the ability to almost instantaneously transmit images around the world was the sideshow in this circus of the impossible. The main event was the launch itself. The countdown and blastoff brought me back to all the launches I watched as a kid while Dad was flying into space and all of the ones I saw as an air force officer after that - eight launches in all. The emotions were always the same, but, obviously, the intensity of those emotions grows when a loved one is strapped in the spacecraft. Dad launched three times and the third was filled with just as much trepidation as the first.
It’s been said many times, but a launch is nothing more than a controlled explosion. You can’t accelerate something to 25 times the speed of sound in about eight minutes and do it any other way. The space shuttle needed 4,000,000 pounds of propellant to fuel that explosion. The Falcon 9 rocket uses about a fourth of that. Either way, when you are consuming fuel that, at launch, weighs into the millions of pounds, it really doesn’t matter what the first digit is – if things go south, you’re going to have a bad day.
With stats like those above in mind, I have supreme confidence that the family members of the Dragon crew felt all of the fear and anxiety that my mom, sisters, and I felt while we watched Dad launch so many years ago. But there were some aspects of the Falcon launch that were noticeably different and that left me wishing I got a piece of their experience back in the day...
First, there was the opportunity the children had to say goodbye to their parents while the crew made their way to the Tesla that would take them to the launch pad. This was a very cool touch and one I wish was available to us back in 1984. When I said goodbye to Dad as he entered quarantine a week before launch, I wouldn’t see him again until he returned to Houston. I took it for granted that the NASA brass understood why it was important to keep a child away from somebody who was going into space. No need to expose an astronaut to a cold or the flu in the days before launch, the logic went.
But while watching Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley wave to their children from a safe distance away, I began to question why we weren’t given the same opportunity. What harm could come from allowing such an arrangement? Especially when that controlled explosion might go uncontrolled at any time? Asking this question made me think of something else: the potential harm of a sickness among the crew in the shuttle days was in some ways much lower than the potential harm for the Dragon crew and their ISS colleagues. After all, in 1984, the shuttle wasn’t docking with a space station that held astronauts expected to stay in a confined space for a year or more. Shuttle missions, on the contrary, lasted no more than a week in most cases - two weeks tops. So any sickness in orbit wouldn’t be a problem for long.
I can hear many of you rightly pointing out that illness could make it impossible for a crew to meet its mission objectives, no matter the duration of the flight. Fair point. But if the spread of a communicable disease truly is a concern, why let any family member see the crew in the days before launch? My mother was allowed to visit Dad in the week leading up to launch after she received a physical from a flight surgeon (I suspect this is still true for spouses of today’s astronauts). But a physical is a snapshot in time. My mother could have caught a cold on her way out of the flight surgeon’s office and contaminated my dad and the rest of the crew that same afternoon. It all seems arbitrary looking in the rear view mirror. Maybe I’m just a bit jealous.
The other thing that I think might have made the experience for the Dragon families different than it was for shuttle families is that they had some degree of comfort that if something did go wrong, their loved one could escape safely. Ths shuttle had no launch phase escape system (come to think of it, the shuttle never had any real escape system for any phase of a mission). Astronauts were prisoners of the vehicle from the moment they strapped in. If the shuttle began to blow up beneath the crew on the launch pad before liftoff in the shuttle era, the astronauts would almost certainly perish. Not so for the crew of Dragon. They had a capsule that could rocket them to safety in such a scenario. That capability to blast free of some calamity existed through virtually all of the powered phases of flight for Behnken and Hurley.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure the last point gave little solace to the families of Behnken and Hurley as the clock wound down. But it must have given them a smidge. And in the moments before the controlled explosion takes place, I have to believe that smidge is worth a lot.