What year did the Americans go into space?

Manned space travel : The Americans are flying back into space themselves

It must be a disgrace for US President Donald Trump and many of his compatriots: America should be made great again, but US astronauts are still flying into space with Russian rockets of all things. Since the last use of a space shuttle in July 2011, the “Soyuz” rockets and capsules have been the only means of transport to bring people to the International Space Station (ISS). This should be over now. This year, in which the 50th anniversary of the moon landing is also being celebrated, American astronauts will finally fly into space again with American rockets, Trump declared in his State of the Union address in early February.

In the footsteps of Apollo and Space Shuttle

An important step on this path is planned for this Saturday. At 8:48 a.m. (CET) the new spacecraft “Crew Dragon” from SpaceX is to take off on board a Falcon-9 rocket for an unmanned test flight. It takes off from the Kennedy Space Center (Florida), where most of the Apollo rockets and space shuttles have already climbed into the sky. Crew Dragon is scheduled to dock at the space station on Sunday and finally return on March 8 and parachute down onto the Atlantic. If this flight and other tests are successful, people should travel with the new spaceship for the first time in July. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who were each involved in two shuttle missions, are intended for this purpose. The first regular flight to the ISS is scheduled for October, although the schedule is very sporty.

In addition to SpaceX, Boeing is also working on a spaceship that can bring astronauts to the ISS. Their “CST-100 Starliner” will be mounted on an Atlas V rocket. The test flight is scheduled for April, the first manned mission will start in August at the earliest.

However, it is not Trump's merit that astronauts will soon take off from American soil again. The story begins almost two decades ago with the realization that the space shuttles cannot be operated at as low a cost as hoped. In 2006, NASA started a program in which companies, with considerable financial support, develop rockets and spaceships to bring supplies and later also astronauts to the near-earth area where the ISS orbits. NASA, in turn, would only buy in these services and instead use its strength in the future to prepare missions to more distant destinations such as the moon and Mars.

Delays, cost increases, uncertainties

The developments for near-earth freight traffic began first, in 2012 the first transporter ("Dragon") reached the station. In 2010 the first money was transferred to potential astronaut taxi providers. It was hoped that they would start operating in 2015. Until then, the Americans would fly with the Russians in the "Soyuz" capsules. The usual delays and cost increases followed. In the end, there were two companies left with SpaceX and Boeing, which received a total of $ 3.1 billion and $ 4.8 billion respectively under NASA's “Commercial Crew Program”, and are now finally ready to go.

In the meantime, tickets for the soy capsules have also become more expensive. It was initially around 50 million dollars, but now a good 80 million dollars are due for each seat. Nasa is currently considering buying two more tickets for autumn 2019 and spring 2020 if there are further delays in the American space taxi service.

Unmanned but pupated

Nobody wants to hear about that these days. “It's great to be back here at the Kennedy Space Center, to get this feeling of what it is like when astronauts take off from here. We are ready for the test flight, ”said William Gerstenmaier, responsible for manned spaceflight at NASA, in front of the press last weekend, after the basic okay for the flight was given at the“ Flight Readiness Review ”. "I guarantee it won't all go perfectly and I expect we'll learn a lot," he added. That is "cool" and exactly what his people want. "If a crew then flies with you, it will be safe."

Because the seven seats in the Crew Dragon remain empty this time, only one doll is allowed. Their sensors are supposed to measure the environmental conditions in the cabin during the flight so that you know what the real crew is about to face. The interior is kept very cool, with sterile white surfaces and carbon fiber elements. There are also large touch screens that display all possible parameters from the air conditioning to the travel data and parameters of the ship.

The spaceship has eight engines that make up the life-saving system. In an emergency, they ignite and carry the crew and capsule away from the rocket. "It works on the ground right through to the phase when the second stage is on fire," says Hans Königsmann, chief engineer at SpaceX. “This is a great benefit in terms of safety.” This ejection seat procedure has already been tested on the ground, and it will be tested in flight in June.

Risky docking

However, the automatic coupling to the space station can also be dangerous if the ship is too fast or does not hit the lock, which in the worst case also endangers the crew in the station. This also applies to the unmanned flight next weekend, as Crew Dragon is already to dock and deliver supplies. "We looked at all the risks and minimized them as best we could," says Kirk Shireman, manager of the ISS program at NASA. The decisive factor is whether it is an acceptable risk. "But it will never be zero," clarifies Shireman.

Basically, it is the same in road traffic, says the former astronaut Ulrich Walter, who now holds the chair for space technology at the Technical University of Munich. “There are around 3,000 deaths on German roads every year, but I still get in a car.” This is how you accept the risk of a space flight, especially if you know the people who prepare it. Walter considers Crew Dragon as well as the Starliner to be good spacecraft. “I probably wouldn't get on the first flight, but I would get on the second or third time.” In contrast to the spacious but sensitive space shuttles, the space capsule system is very robust and has proven itself. "As a cargo transporter, Dragon has already completed many flights to the ISS and therefore seems more reliable to me than the Starliner."

It was a "good idea" to involve private companies

It has always been clear that an alternative to the Soyuz capsules is needed: If there was a problem with the Russian feeder, the ISS would be inaccessible. This is exactly what happened in October 2018 after a Soyuz rocket failed to launch. The error was found quickly, and two months later the next crew could travel to the station. In the event of a serious problem, the compulsory break could have been significantly longer. Crew Dragon and Starliner are therefore not only in the national interest of the USA.

But in view of the delays and high costs, was it a mistake to outsource the development of flight opportunities to the ISS to companies? Space expert Walter says no. It's a good idea. Even now, when it becomes clear that at least Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, is not satisfied with near-Earth space and competes with NASA with his lunar and Mars ambitions. “He's an entrepreneur, he can do what he wants.” The Chinese are also active there and plan manned flights - a little competition is always good. "With Mars, however, I cannot imagine that NASA and Musk would fly there separately from each other," says Walter. "One day the programs of NASA's heavy-lift rocket Space Launch System and SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket will converge and you will fly there together."

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