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New Spaceship Prepares To Blast Off And Make History

May 26, 2020
Originally published on May 27, 2020 8:03 am

Almost 40 years have passed since the last time NASA astronauts blasted off into space on a brand new spaceship.

Now, as NASA looks forward to Wednesday's planned test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon with a pair of astronauts on board, some in the spaceflight community have a little bit of déjà vu.

The first space shuttle, Columbia, flew on April 12, 1981. Crowds gathered in Florida to watch this strange new spacecraft. It looked more like an airplane than the familiar bell-shaped capsules of the Apollo moon missions.

Wayne Hale's wife woke him up for the shuttle launch and he watched it on television in his bedroom, where he'd been trying to get a little sleep after working a prelaunch shift at Houston's Mission Control. He'd just come to NASA a few years before, and he says that a lot about that time was not so different from now.

"The substantially similar thing is that we've been waiting too long without being able to send Americans into orbit from America," says Hale, who went on to be a flight director for dozens of shuttle missions and head of the shuttle program.

Almost six years went by between the last flight of an Apollo spacecraft and the first space shuttle launch. "I remember a lot of talk about, 'Well, we should never be in the position as a nation again of not being able to send astronauts into space for this long,' " Hale says.

This time around, though, NASA has been waiting even longer — almost nine years.

NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011. Since then, it has been paying for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. That means American astronauts have been launching from Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, the space agency has been partnering with companies such as SpaceX and Boeing to help them build their own space vehicles. The idea was that NASA would focus on more ambitious missions like a return to the lunar surface, while letting space companies basically operate a taxi service to the nearby station.

One of them — the SpaceX Crew Dragon — is finally ready to blast off with people on board. And some in the space industry think this historic launch marks the start of a revolution for space travel.

That's because folks outside of NASA will be able to fly on these space taxis, too, if they can afford the fare, opening up space as a more accessible travel destination. Already there's talk of Tom Cruise riding a SpaceX capsule to the station to shoot an action movie.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for its first crewed launch from American soil. It arrived at the launch site on Feb. 13.
SpaceX

Here again, history is repeating itself. Hale says the reusable space shuttle was supposed to transform space travel in a similar way.

"We were going to take Walter Cronkite. My goodness, we were going to have journalists in space. We were going to take entertainers," he recalls. "We were going to take John Denver into space."

All of that ended with the Challenger disaster and the deaths of all on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. The shuttle was more dangerous and more expensive than originally planned, and it flew far less often than NASA had hoped. The agency had to shelve its vision of bringing up lots of ordinary people.

"Let's hope that this new generation of spacecraft really work out to be safe enough where we really can do that," says Hale.

The safety of SpaceX's capsule and rocket is better understood than the shuttle was at its start. SpaceX had a successful test flight to the station and back with no people on board — except after it had docked to the station, when astronauts on board the outpost opened the hatch and went inside.

The company also checked out the safety system for astronauts by deliberately destroying one of its rockets and checking to ensure that the capsule escaped without harm.

The first orbital mission of the space shuttle lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981.
NASA

Nothing like that was true for the space shuttle. NASA had never launched anything like it before sending it up with two astronauts: veteran John Young and rookie Robert Crippen.

On Wednesday afternoon at 4:33 p.m. EDT, from the very same launch pad, the SpaceX vehicle is scheduled to carry up another pair of astronauts: Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken.

"It's probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship and I'm lucky enough to get that opportunity," says Behnken.

Hurley says that during their time in the astronaut corps, they both had an opportunity to interact with the first space shuttle flyers. He recently saw Crippen at an event in Texas a few years ago, and they talked about that first shuttle launch.

"I think one thing that really registered with me with what Bob Crippen said was, you know, 'We were so focused on flying the mission, flying the vehicle, and executing and not making a mistake,' " says Hurley.

That's the kind of intense focus Hurley has to have, even in the midst of a pandemic that has NASA begging people not to gather in crowds to watch as they've done in the past for the shuttle.

A Crew Dragon launch escape demonstration which occurred earlier this year.
SpaceX

Both Behnken and Hurley have flown on the space shuttle — in fact, Hurley was on its last mission. The shuttle had a cockpit crammed full of switches and dials, but the more modern SpaceX capsule is controlled with a sleek touchscreen.

"Growing up as a pilot, my whole career, having a certain way to control a vehicle," says Hurley. "This is certainly different."

And when the duo returns to Earth, they'll splash down in the ocean rather than coasting to a stop on a landing strip.

They will, however, be carrying some familiar cargo: an American flag. It flew on the first shuttle mission and the last. It has been hanging at the space station for years, just waiting for a crew to launch from the U.S. and bring it back home.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Sometimes it helps to look up beyond this world. And today is a good day to do that because history could happen in space travel. This afternoon, two NASA astronauts are scheduled to blast off on the test flight of a new spaceship, a capsule made by SpaceX. It has been almost 40 years since the space agency has sent a crew up in a brand-new vehicle. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports what's the same this time around and what's different.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The last time NASA astronauts flew on a new spaceship was April 12, 1981. Crowds gathered that morning in Florida. For a country used to the bell-shaped capsules of the Apollo moon missions, the black-and-white shuttle looked strange, like an airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGH HARRIS: Seven, six, five, four - we've gone for main engine start. We have main engine start.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The launch was blindingly bright and surprisingly fast. Wayne Hale watched on TV in his bedroom, where he'd been trying to catch a few hours of sleep after working a pre-launch shift at Houston's Mission Control.

WAYNE HALE: People in my generation grew up with, like, the Apollo missions. And the Saturn 5 just looked like it took forever to get clear of the tower. You know, it's very slow. And the shuttle just, with those solid rocket motors, just, pow. They were out of town.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hale went on to be a flight director for dozens of shuttle missions and head of the space shuttle program. He retired from NASA and now consults for commercial space companies. For him, the upcoming launch of a SpaceX capsule is like deja vu.

HALE: The substantially similar thing is that we've been waiting too long without being able to send, you know, Americans into orbit from America.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Almost six years went by between the end of Apollo and the first space shuttle launch.

HALE: And I remember a lot of talk about, well, we should never be in the position as a nation again not being able to send astronauts into space for this long.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This time, NASA has been waiting even longer - almost nine years. Since the shuttle stopped flying in 2011, the U.S. has relied on Russian rockets to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, NASA has been partnering with companies like SpaceX and Boeing to help them build their own space vehicles. One of them, the SpaceX Dragon, is finally ready to blast off with people onboard.

Some in the space industry think that this kind of commercial space taxi will transform space travel because folks outside of NASA will be able to fly on them, too, opening up space as a destination. Here again, history is repeating itself. Hale says the reusable space shuttle was supposed to revolutionize space travel in a similar way.

HALE: We were going to take Walter Cronkite. My goodness, we're going to have journalists in space. We're going to take entertainers. This is going to really date me - we're going to take John Denver into space.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All of that ended with the Challenger disaster. The shuttle was more dangerous and more expensive than originally planned. It flew far less often than NASA had hoped. The safety of SpaceX's capsule and rocket is better understood. There's been a flight test with no people onboard. That was not true of the space shuttle.

NASA had never launched anything like it before sending it up with two astronauts, veteran John Young and rookie Robert Crippen. Now, from the very same launch pad, the SpaceX vehicle will carry up another pair of astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Hurley says he recently saw Crippen at an event in Texas. And they talked about flying a spaceship for the very first time.

DOUGLAS HURLEY: And I think one thing that really registered with me with what Bob Crippen said was, you know, we were so focused on flying the mission, flying the vehicle and executing and not making a mistake.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's the kind of hyper-focus Hurley has to have even in the midst of a pandemic that has NASA begging people not to gather in crowds to watch, like they've done for past launches. Hurley has flown on the space shuttle himself. In fact, he was on its last mission. The shuttle had a cockpit crammed full of switches and dials. But the SpaceX capsule is controlled with a sleek touchscreen.

HURLEY: Growing up as a pilot, my whole career, having a certain way to control a vehicle, this is certainly different.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And when he and Behnken return to Earth, they'll splash down in the ocean rather than coasting to a stop on a landing strip. Still, he'll be carrying some familiar cargo, an American flag. It flew on the first shuttle mission and the last. It's been hung up on the space station for years just waiting for a crew to launch from the U.S. and bring it back home.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.