Featured image: Cargo Dragon approaching the ISS. Picture here.
I’ve read countless biographies of astronauts whose infatuations with space were jumpstarted by watching, hearing, or reading about Sputnik, Explorer 1, the Mercury flights or Apollo 11. The dates on which they happened—October 4, 1957, January 31, 1958, August 21, 1959, and July 16, 1969—are forever etched into the history of humanity.
I think you could call this day historic.
When Atlantis touched down on Runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011 for the final mission of the Space Shuttle program, it marked the beginning of a nearly 9-year pause in America’s human spaceflight. Throughout those 9 years, several vehicles have been proposed, such as NASA’s Orion capsule—designed for Moon and eventually deep space/Mars missions—and Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser. However, while these programs were being put through their paces, NASA flew its astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Note that a single seat on the Russian-built rocket costs $86 million. NASA needed their own human spaceflight program, but because of various budget costs, politics, and many other factors they haven’t got one until now.
From the moment I knew Dragon existed, I thought, This is a modern spacecraft. The sleek interior comfortably fits 7 people in just 9.3 cubic meters, the same crew capacity of the Space Shuttle in less than an eighth of its size. From its beautiful, custom-fitted chairs and drop-down screens to the non-Stay Puft spacesuits its astronauts wear, SpaceX’s newest spacecraft evokes a sci-fi-like feel. But yesterday, science fiction became science fact.
At 12:22 PM PST (3:22 PM EST for everyone on the East Coast), history was made as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launched with a crew from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A (the launchpad of the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions). When the countdown clock hit zero, it marked not only the launch of a rocket but America’s return to human spaceflight.
It wasn’t easy for SpaceX to get to this point; they couldn’t get their Falcon 1 (their earliest rocket) into orbit safely until after three failed launches and near-bankruptcy in 2008. After they proved themselves with Falcon 1, they moved on to Falcon 5 and finally Falcon 9, which NASA awarded a $1.6 billion contract to fly cargo to the ISS with. Since then, the Falcon 9/Dragon has been a reliable resupply vehicle for the ISS, and its 80-plus missions have been mostly flawless (Wattles, 2020). The 9-year buildup of Dragon’s capabilities reminds one of the Apollo program, the culmination of 11 years of incremental spaceflight achievements.
Today, the Crew Dragon has docked to the ISS, and its crew of two is safely aboard. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have joined NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, aboard the orbiting science laboratory.
Millions of kids watching the launch and subsequent docking in the US and around the world have been inspired to pursue STEM fields, just like my experiences following Space Camp and trips to JPL. These “Apollo moments”, just like the first moon landing on Apollo 11, told the world to look up for once and lift themselves above the chaos down on Earth, something that we all need right now.
The graph above shows the number of PhDs earned from 1958 onwards; the numbers peaked at or around the date of Apollo 17. What’s so significant about this is that the Apollo program inspired people to get these PhDs. That means our return to low Earth orbit (LEO), the Moon, or even Mars missions could do the same, driving innovation rates higher and putting more bright minds into the field.
Our dreams of Moon bases and missions to Mars might come sooner than you think. That’s why this generation is going to grow up inspired by Dragon, just like the last generations grew up inspired by the Space Shuttle and Apollo.
International Space Exploration Coordination Group. “Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration.” Sept. 2013.
Wattles, Jackie. “SpaceX-NASA Launch: What to Know Ahead of Saturday’s Scheduled Flight.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 May 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/05/29/tech/spacex-nasa-launch-may-30-scn/index.html.