On April 20th, SpaceX celebrated the unofficial holiday by lighting up — in an unfortunate surprise explosion. They were testing the Crew Dragon, a spacecraft designed to carry people to (where else?) space and, more specifically, the International Space Station (ISS).
In the midst of testing its fancy SuperDraco thrusters, a mysterious anomaly happened and the entire thing caught fire. Two weeks have gone by since the failure, but SpaceX still hasn’t figured out what caused the malfunction.
Despite the small issue of the flaming Dragon, SpaceX is planning to go forward with another scheduled launch this Saturday, May 4. It’s a different Dragon capsule heading up to the ISS, bringing supplies for the crew and science experiments.
Remind me again: What is SpaceX?
Just in case you need a refresher or were too afraid to ask, let’s get a reminder on what SpaceX is: it’s a company that designs, creates, and launches rockets and spacecraft. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, started it in 2002 to bring space travel into the private sphere. They regularly team up with NASA and have completed 16 launches for the government agency with their reusable rocket Falcon 9.
The Crew Dragon explosion and what it means for NASA
Smoke poured out of SpaceX’s facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 20th. The Crew Dragon was engulfed in flames and shortly destroyed, leaving SpaceX wondering what the hell happened? The capsule had successfully flown to the ISS and back in March (with no one on it), but this time SpaceX was testing its SuperDraco thrusters.
The SuperDracos aren’t for regular maneuvering — the testing of those smaller thrusters went fine — they’re an emergency backup plan. In case anything goes wrong during a rocket launch, the SuperDracos are supposed to power the Dragon and its crew away and to safety. But just before SpaceX turned them on, the destructive “anomaly” happened. It certainly threw a wrench in their plan to get astronauts to the ISS via the Crew Dragon in July.
So what’s the big deal about the Crew Dragon? Well, NASA once created and flew its own spacecraft, like the Apollo capsules and Space Shuttles, but lately they’ve been relying on Russia’s Soyuz rocket and capsule to get astronauts to space. That’s supposed to change this year, though, with SpaceX and Boeing both testing their passenger spacecraft.
After this fiery fiasco, the Crew Dragon mission has probably been pushed back a few months, closer to aircraft manufacturer Boeing’s coming launch. Boeing plans to fly its spacecraft CST-100 Starliner with passengers by the end of the year. Theoretically, these private companies are bringing in a new age of space travel in their partnerships with NASA.
The Dragon cargo launch: delays, landing, and what’s on board
While SpaceX and its fans may be dismayed by the almost certainly delayed mission to send astronauts to the ISS via the Dragon, the company has other planned launches to keep everyone occupied. On Saturday SpaceX plans to send a Dragon cargo capsule to the ISS filled with an assortment of goodies, which it’s successfully done before. The capsule has supplies for the crew and space station, but also equipment for science experiments. The Dragon capsule will be blasting off with the aid of the rocket Falcon 9 (named after the Millennium Falcon); the Dragon sits at the tippy top while Falcon 9 effectively does all the work to get it into space. The launch was planned for Friday, May 3rd, but an electrical issue delayed it.
Since April’s explosion, SpaceX had to adjust the plan for the cargo Dragon’s launch. Originally, Falcon 9 was going to land on the company’s terrestrial landing pad but the area is being investigated due to the Crew Dragon’s little accident. Instead, the rocket will land on one of SpaceX’s floating drone ships.
SpaceX has two “drone ships” floating in the ocean; they’re autonomous platforms that serve as rocket landing pads. Like Dragon and Falcon 9, they have whimsical names, too: Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You (after sentient ships from the sci-fi book The Player of Games). The bottom half of Falcon 9 is technically reusable, so it’s supposed to land on Of Course I Still Love You after getting the Dragon capsule out of the atmosphere. It should go according to plan since SpaceX first successfully completed this landing in 2016, but Of Course I Still Love You, the drone ship, had electrical issues Friday, May 3rd, delaying the launch. As long as nothing goes wrong, the launch will happen Saturday.
Are you still wondering what’s the point of sending the Dragon to the space station? Well, this may come as a surprise to you, but an astronaut’s job entails more than just blasting into space, chilling in microgravity, and coming back down to Earth. They do a variety of science experiments up on the space station, some to explore the possibilities and troubles of long-term space missions and some to make life on Earth better.
The cargo Dragon will be delivering equipment for a variety of experiments, including human tissue samples for disease modeling and pharmaceutical experimentation (microgravity seems to speed up this sort of testing, compared to Earth-bound disease modeling). Another ongoing experiment that the Dragon will be aiding is one using the external carbon observatory, which is attached to the outside of the ISS. It’s monitoring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels all around Earth to help scientists understand why plants and algae consume varying amounts of carbon dioxide each year.
Even after such a tumultuous few weeks, I’m sure Elon Musk is still saying Of course I still love you to his Dragon spacecraft.