The first human space flight mission from a private firm opens up new possibilities for the space industry. What exactly did they accomplish and what does this mean for the future of space exploration?

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." These words, when received in the summer of 1969, marked the beginning of a new era- the era of human spaceflight. While there has been a constant debate on the importance of human spaceflight, it is well acknowledged that the space industry did disappoint in manned spaceflight missions. The last moon landing was way back in 1972 after which the interest in human spaceflight declined steadily. With a few fatal accidents like the Columbia disaster, public pressure mounted too high to allow for future human spaceflight missions. The average taxpayer wasn't interested in seeing a fellow countryman on the moon or in space anymore, especially when other problems seemed more critical. Until now.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, the astronauts selected to fly to the ISS for the worl's first private space humanflight mission. Courtesy:SpaceX
NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, who were selected for the mission to ISS. Courtesy: SpaceX

The Falcon-9 launches

On May 30, two American astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, lifted off for a journey to space from the familiar Florida launchpad. Only this time, the rockets were not from NASA. Enter SpaceX.  Elon Musk's highly ambitious space start-up had materialised to colonised mars. And while the first few of its rocket launches didn't go well, sending American astronauts to space would be game-changing for the company. While the crowd cheered and million watched the telecast, the Falcon 9 engines roared to the skies. The launch was a success and a resounding reminder that the USA is still an extremely competent nation in science and tech; a question which many raised given the country's complete helplessness against the pandemic.

The launch was broadcasted live and watched by millions across the globe as the Falcon 9 lifted off Launchpad 39A. A few minutes later, the stage booster separated followed by the separation of the Crew Dragon from the Falcon 9. The spacecrafted then manoeuvred and docked itself to the ISS.
The Falcon 9 launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Courtesy: SpaceX

Why did the astronauts do aboard the ISS?

The astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley helped their fellow astronauts with the usual tasks for managing the ISS on their 64-day trip. This involved changing batteries of the space station by executing several space walks among other things. There were already two Russian and an American aboard the ISS when the Crew Dragon arrived. The astronauts also conducted several experiments in space to observe the response of various biological and physical systems in a low-gravity environment. These experiments are planned before the launch and are an essential part of most ISS missions. Some of them include handling fluids in space, and how electrolysis and other processes occur in microgravity.

The astronauts also installed a European Drawer Rack Mark 2 (EDR-2)  module engineered by the European Space Agency. The EDR-2 is a flexible experimental facility, roughly fridge-sized, and will allow for new experiments to be run in space. The initial experiments planned for the EDR-2 include testing of a metal 3D-printer and investigating particle physics and heat transfer behaviour in microgravity. One of the advantages of working in space, is, of course, that it is a low gravity environment, which makes installation of such modules significantly less demanding physically for the astronauts.

Another key part of the mission involved taking images and contributing it to the Crew Earth Observations (CEO). These images are then sent for geological studies, as they offer important insights into cloud formation and how the planet Earth is behaving over time.

Droplet creation in microgravity experiment. Courtesy: NASA

How did they return then?

One of the most crucial phases of any ISS mission is the return of the astronauts. The Crew Dragon performed a series of precise thrust manoeuvres to lock up in the path planned by the mission control. Once locked, the astronauts are then protected by a heat-shield which experiences temperature around 2000 degrees celsius.

On August 2, the spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, after the parachute was opened. SpaceX had originally planned to use their SuperDraco thrusters to return on land instead of water. However, as development progressed, the engineers switched to focus on parachutes as their landing system for their increased relaibility and ease to incorporate for the Crew Dragon.

Why are NASA and SpaceX doing this together?

The Demo-2 mission, as it is officially called by SpaceX, is the first in a series of launches upcoming under NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The program is a parternship between NASA and private companies to 'develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.'  Boeing and SpaceX have been selected under the program which promises to boost the space industry. This will enhance the utilisation of existing facilities while boosting space research. NASA also ends up saving an enormous amount of the American Taxpayer's money as it shift from the Soyuz Rocket to the Falcon 9, a welcome move to the American citizens and to NASA.

As the Falcon 9 shoot for the skies, it will be a testimonial to SpaceX and its capabilities. In particular, it serves to validate the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, the launch pad 39A and the Crew Dragon spacecraft. This will be the final test before NASA certifies the Crew Dragon for for operational, long-duration missions to the space station. Meanwhile, Boeing's Starlink has not made it to the ISS due to several software glitches but will try again later in the year, but without astronauts.

The Crew Dragon is a bigger updated version of the original Dragon capsule which has been used several times in the past to transport cargo to the ISS. The Crew Dragon however, has a much higher capacity and can accomodate 7 astronauts. NASA later intends to use the spacecraft again to transport four more astronauts to the ISS later this year. The crew dragon is quite different from the space shuttle used before, with touch controls instead of buttons and far more space than the latter.

The astronauts in one of the simulation done in the Crew Dragon. Courtesy: NASA

Why are the ISS missions so important?

ISS missions are crucial to future spaceflight travel as they offer deep insights into the challenges with long duration space missions and the challenges involved. The ISS is used to conduct several experiments in the zero-gravity environment. Lately, there has been a spike in companies attempting to perform  experiments from diverse fields, ranging from biology to robotics manufacturing. It is argued that as gravity effects decrease, it might be much easier to manufacture in such environments. From a basic sciences perspective, the ISS can help unravel deep mysteries in various fields, as it is the only accesible microgravity lab with true in-space conditions. Experiments can be performed to observe the change in biological functioning of organisms due to microgravity and radiation. Physics research and material sciences are some other disciplines which are affected and thus researched upon in microgravity.The ISS also has unique observation capabilites which are particularly helpful in predicting geological happenings and study climate change.

Biological experiments in the ISS might unravel several mysteries. Courtesy:NASA

What does this mean for the future of space industry?

The launch has also opened up new doors for several start-ups which looked too ambitious a couple of years ago amidst increasing interest in space tourism. A few private firms have already announced their plans to have their own capsule at some time with the ISS but only exclusive to tourists, an idea which seems more plausible than ever before. But while the possibilites are endless, the competition will also rise. SpaceX might have been the biggest name in private space industry, but will now face tough competition, especially with some big names like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson aiming for the skies as well. On the other hand, Boeing is closing up on the lead and will probably be capable to launch astronauts next year. With increased funding and public interest, it might not be long before space becomes the next most popular tourist attraction!