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SpaceX Dragon May Ferry Astronauts By 2015


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Last week, the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific, wrapping up a glitch-free journey to the International Space Station. It was an historic first. The Dragon is really the only private spacecraft to have made the trip. This time there was only cargo aboard. But it will be - not be long before astronauts are hitching rides on the Dragon? That's what SpaceX is planning for next, and they hope to have seats ready for travelers by 2015. So you can mark that in your calendar.

How do you make this thing safe for astronauts? And could this private shuttle service to the Space Station, could that free up NASA to work on bolder ideas like, hey, like going to Mars and beyond? Clara Moskowitz is a writer for space.com here in New York. She's been reporting on the Dragon mission and she joins us in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CLARA MOSKOWITZ: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Were you surprised how smoothly this thing - whole thing went? There was a little glitch at the beginning, right?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, the first launch attempt didn't go off as planned, but even that went smoothly. You know, there was a smooth abort. They looked at the problem, they fixed it. They tried again three days later, and from then on I was honestly kind of shocked at how smooth it was.


FLATOW: How does the operation - their control center - compare to the big NASA operating center?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, it's interesting to notice the contrast. I mean, it's a much leaner team, just fewer people, you know, lot less bureaucracy. You sort of sense this quicker operations and the sort of different atmosphere. They're kind of like excited. They feel like their blazing this new trail.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Were there any glitches at all during the mission, or even minor, little ones?

MOSKOWITZ: There was a couple minor - they almost wouldn't be worth mentioning except that we have nothing else to talk about as reporters. I mean, you know, the laser navigation system had a hiccup the first time they tried to use it but it was - they fixed it, and it worked out just fine.

FLATOW: I remember, we had Elon on the program, and he was saying, you know, stowaways could go on this mission even though it's not equipped for people, and they would survive.

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, that's the interesting thing, is the capsule itself would not be very different at all if there was people on board. And the way this mission went, people would have done just fine.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. In fact, there was talk - I remember reading on the Internet - that when it arrived at the International Space Station and the astronauts there opened it up, it had a new car smell inside. Did you hear about that?

MOSKOWITZ: I heard that, yeah. They have a good sense of humor up on the space station, and you could tell they were just so excited to have a new toy to play with, that it had arrived. And it is different from anything that's ever been there. So I don't know if it really smelled any different, but I assume that everything just felt kind of shiny and new.

FLATOW: Yeah. There are other cargo ships. The Russians have cargo ships that go up, back and forth. What makes this one different from those?

MOSKOWITZ: The big difference is that this is the only one that can come back safely. Russia, Japan, Europe, they all have these ships that are pretty similar except they're all designed to die on the way back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere during re-entry. And Dragon is the only one with a heat shield that allows it to withstand that re-entry process.

FLATOW: I mean, when they put all that stuff in there to send it back to Earth, they're waving goodbye to it forever? It's going to - all that garbage or whatever that's up there, just taking it away.

MOSKOWITZ: Well, they use it for that purpose. You know, on purpose they put trash in there that they need to get rid of, so it is kind of useful to have some spacecraft that are designed to be destroyed. But they have a lot of science experiments that they want to analyze back on the ground or hardware that went wrong that they need to look at, so this is providing a really necessary capability to do that.

FLATOW: You know, we never even thought about that. We never think that there is science going on up there, and you'd want to bring the results back.

MOSKOWITZ: Exactly. Yeah, I mean, some of it can be analyzed up there, you know, and you get all the data you need remotely. But there's quite a lot that needs to be taken back into a lab on Earth.

FLATOW: Gee, what a great - what an interesting idea. And there's room for seven people, right? Is there a schedule for signing up or who those people are going to be or who decides what's happening? Are they going to be just, quote-unquote, "just astronauts" who go - whom need to go back and forth to the space station? Or could they be tourists?

MOSKOWITZ: The cool thing is that SpaceX owns the rocket, so they can do whatever they want with it. They're not bound by any law that says you can't sell seats to whoever has enough money to pay for them. So I think that they're going to start off taking astronauts with NASA as the client. But they certainly have stated their intention to carry up tourists as well, and maybe scientists. And there's a lot of countries that don't have their own space program but they want to send astronauts to space, so they want to hire SpaceX.

FLATOW: And Elon talks about going to Mars, right?

MOSKOWITZ: That's right, that's right. And, you know, he seems like the kind of guy to do it. The hardware is already being worked on. You know, the heavy-lift rocket is just an upgrade of the Falcon 9 that took this capsule off to space that would be able to go a little bit further, to Mars.

FLATOW: Why was the - there was that little glitch on the first day of launch where the rockets ignited and shut down. Why was the turnaround time so short? You know, we - sometimes when NASA does something, it takes days and days to turn it around.

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, yeah. It was kind of amazing. I mean, it turned out to be that a valve inside one of the rocket engines was broken and, basically, that that very day, they sent in technicians to look up what was the problem. They found it. They replaced it. They tested it out, and they were good to go three days later. And I think that - I mean, it has to do the flexibility of having that smaller team, maybe, and it has to do with the simplicity of the design of the rocket compared to a space shuttle, which is just so much more complex and harder to reach the insides of it.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's the most complex piece of machinery, supposedly, ever built.

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

FLATOW: Yeah. Now, the way it docked with the space station, the robot arm had to go out and grab it, right?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, that's right.

FLATOW: Is that the normal way you would always dock? Or would you just be able to go right up there?

MOSKOWITZ: Once it has people onboard, those people will probably do the docking by hand themselves. But this was kind of easier. They could install a totally autonomous docking system, but it's complicated and would require a lot more, sort of, safety precautions to make sure nothing went wrong. And it's just a lot easier to have astronauts reach it and grab it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Clara Moskowitz, and she's talking to us about the SpaceX Dragon. She is a writer for Space.com here in New York. Are there -well, one of the - this is sort of back to the future, the way rocketry is now developing, right? We're now putting people on top of a rocket instead of on the bottom, like the shuttle was built.


FLATOW: And there's - the only rocket ever built for humans that did not have an escape system at the top was the space shuttle.


FLATOW: So there's going to be an escape system - rocket escape system on the top of this rocket, also?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, that's right. I mean, some people complain that you're kind of going back to, you know, what came before.

FLATOW: Back to the future.

MOSKOWITZ: But the space shuttle was a great vehicle. It did a lot of things. But it wasn't as safe as we wanted it to be. And it's so much safer to have the astronauts on the top of the stack of rocket, so that if something goes wrong below them, they can just kind of hop off in this launch escape system.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Bruce in Alexandria, Virginia. Hi, Bruce.

BRUCE: Hey. How's it going?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

BRUCE: I'm just a little bit curious - and congratulations to SpaceX on one in a row. But Atlas and Delta have been out there forever and are very reliable space vehicles. I'm just curious as to why NASA is going whole hog on SpaceX when I know that the others have the capabilities, but - and are also commercial, and are just sort of being, as near as I can tell, left out of this.

MOSKOWITZ: Well, there's actually a lot of other commercial companies that are building capsules that they plan to fly on top of the Delta. So it's not that those are being completely left out. SpaceX decided to do everything in-house, from top to bottom. But almost - most of the other commercial companies, in fact, are just building the spacecraft and not the rocket, and those companies are still in the running to be the one that NASA goes with.

FLATOW: There has been a lot of fanfare about Dragon being the first private craft to make it to the space station. But in the history of space flight, aren't - doesn't NASA farm out all the rocket ships and things like that, anyhow? What makes this so different? I mean, you know, I'm thinking of Lockheed, Martin Marietta - all of these companies back in history of space travel. They were there. They built the stuff. What makes this different?

MOSKOWITZ: The distinction is a lot more subtle than a lot of people make it out to be. Basically, in the past, NASA would buy a rocket or a spacecraft from a company like Northrop Grumman.

FLATOW: Right.

MOSKOWITZ: Now, they buy services. The company retains ownership of the vehicle. So it's just almost the technicality, but it does have different repercussions for how much control NASA has.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And give us an idea of the price point, as they say, price differential between NASA doing - let's say if NASA were going to take seven people up in a space shuttle and - and this Dragon, how much - that's got room for seven. It's like an SUV, you know. What's the cost difference in that?

MOSKOWITZ: They haven't said the exact cost per launch for the crewed vehicle, but to give you an idea, SpaceX already has a contract for $1.6 billion for 12 flights of unmanned cargo delivery services. So that's - I mean, that's going to break down to be much, much cheaper than the space shuttle's services, or even Russia's Soyuz, which is how we're sending astronauts now. Those are about $60 million a seat, and SpaceX has promised to beat that, for sure.

FLATOW: Well, if you do the little numbers quickly on the back of the envelope, like - it's sort of like 30 million, something...

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah. It's - but those are for the unmanned flights, so the crewed flights could be more.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go back to the phones. Let's go to Frank in San Ramon, California. Hi, Frank.

FRANK: Hello.

FLATOW: Hey, there.

FRANK: Hi. I got a simple question that just occurred to me as I listen to what you're saying: Why can't they simply shut - slow down the speed of re-entry so the heat shields aren't a concern to begin with?

MOSKOWITZ: Well, they do slow down the speed of re-entry with parachutes and stuff as much as they can, but, I mean, there's only so much you can do when you have to go from orbital speed to nothing in a short period of time. You're just talking about plowing through so much atmosphere and dissipating so much kinetic energy that there's going to be this huge heat problem.

FLATOW: But Elon Musk said that he wants to land on his thrusters.

MOSKOWITZ: That's right.

FLATOW: I'm thinking the old Flash Gordon rocket that backs down, you know, comes down out of the sky backwards, lands on its fins. Is it something like that?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it'll be a first of its kind. So...

FLATOW: Is he the only one who thinks who can do this, or...

MOSKOWITZ: He's the only one who's saying publicly that he has plans to do this. A lot of people like BlueOrigin are so secretive. They keep everything so close to the cuff, and they're not really letting on what their plans are.

FLATOW: So there are people we don't hear much about, space competitors. Talk about those, who they are.

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, there are, for sure. And partly, SpaceX is out first, for sure, so that is why you hear about them more. You know, Orbital Sciences is another company that is the other main competitor to SpaceX for the cargo ship. And their first launch is expected this fall, but that'll just be their very first test flight to orbit. So they are significantly behind SpaceX, but they're competing to do basically the same thing that Dragon is doing. And then you have a lot of - a whole bunch of companies, actually, competing for crew.

So you have Sierra Nevada. You have Boeing, which is building a capsule, the CFT. You have BlueOrigin. And so, you know, they've had a couple rounds of this crew, but they haven't done any test flights or anything. It's a little bit farther off in the future.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here, talking with Clara Moskowitz, writer for Space.com. What happened to the Rutans and their efforts? And are they more into tourist space than delivering cargo and going up to the space station?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, what they is called suborbital. So it doesn't make full orbit around the Earth, and it sounds like, oh, it's almost as good. But it's so much easier. It's such a completely different process. So they're - the Virgin Galactic ship that Burt Rutan is building, that could never, ever go to orbit, and it could never come back. It's just not built for that. So they basically - they can take tourists up and they can take brief science projects up, because they have about five minutes of weightlessness. And believe it or not, you can do some good research in five minutes if you have everything all set to go. But it's a totally different ballgame than orbital.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. A question from Andy Prichard(ph), and a tweet came in: What do these private spaceship projects mean for the Orion program that NASA is funding?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah. The Orion is basically a version of what NASA's working on to go beyond low Earth orbit. So they want to go to asteroids and the moon and Mars, and this is also the way that suborbital-to-orbital is a huge step up. Orbital to beyond low Earth orbit is another big step up. So NASA basically says: We can't work on a trip to an asteroid if we are also working on sending astronauts to the space station. We just can't do it all. We need to outsource this to the private sector, and meanwhile we'll go build ourselves a big rocket to go to asteroids.

FLATOW: Oh, so they say, you know, we've got too much on our plate if we do all of these things. Let's subcontract the small stuff.

MOSKOWITZ: Exactly. Because it's almost like been there, done that. I mean, NASA could build a new replacement for the Space Shuttle to go to orbit. But they kind of really know how to do that. They know how to do it so well that they say it should be simple enough for private companies to now do this, and they're going to tackle the next big hard thing.

FLATOW: Yeah, they've done this since the '60s. I mean, this is not - you know, this is not rocket science.


FLATOW: It's not anymore, right? Isn't that - it's basically just knowing how to put those parts together.

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, I mean, yes and no. So you look at North Korea trying to do it, and it's not that easy, either, you know?

FLATOW: Good point.

MOSKOWITZ: So it is really hard, but to see SpaceX do it like clockwork, I mean, they're making it look easy, for sure.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can go to Hugh in Oakland. Hi, Hugh.

HUGH: Hi. Thanks for the program. Does this change the liability issues? I'm sure it's better for NASA if an accident happens and then it gets, you know, to the private company. But whether it's a payload or whether it's passengers, astronauts, if an accident happens, you know, is this a liability for the private company and their insurance, or how does that work?

MOSKOWITZ: It's actually a thorny issue. They're still trying to work out just what the laws are going to be because, basically, the private companies are saying: We can't do this if we don't have a liability shield. You know, that you just can't put that kind of liability on a private company. So there probably will be something in place, I think, to protect them, to a certain degree. But you're right that certain of the dynamics are changed.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so we think this is start of a new era now? You think we're in a new era?

MOSKOWITZ: I think we saw a new era May 22nd, when that thing went up.

FLATOW: Would you like to go yourself?

MOSKOWITZ: Yeah, definitely. Definitely.

FLATOW: You would, huh?

MOSKOWITZ: I would, for sure. Take me to Mars.


FLATOW: Well, maybe, yeah. Maybe we'll see you up there someday.


FLATOW: Thank you, Clara.

MOSKOWITZ: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Clara Moskowitz is a writer for Space.com here in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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