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Musk's space mission to wave US flag

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

Standby. Ignition. Lift off!

Astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley

And it's go for space travel to become cool again and mesmerise a whole new generation, thanks to electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Musk has gone into the space taxi business with SpaceX, the world's first crewed commercial space mission.

At around 9.30pm today, if, but, and maybe – as space launches are full of ifs, buts, and maybes – America will make a return to space.

That is, American astronauts will take off from America in an American space rocket, something not seen since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

So it's not just a pioneering new direction for space travel, but a mission that is important to the pride of a nation, and will be a stepping stone to the ambition to return Americans to the moon in 2024.

Underlining just how big a deal it is, Donald Trump is expected to be present in person at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to watch the launch from the exact place that the Apollo 11 moon mission lifted off, although other spectators are being discouraged because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the demise of the Space Shuttle programme, Americans have had the humiliation of having only one option of getting into space – taking a ride in a Russian Soyuz space rocket at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per flight.

Now Tesla co-founder Musk has come up with SpaceX, which will, so it is hoped, usher in a new era and raises the prospect of the privatisation of space.

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In essence Nasa astronauts will be using his Falcon 9 rocket as a private hire car to take them into orbit. Apart from the matter of national prestige, his fare is a lot cheaper than the Russians'.

Triumph

Nasa turned to aerospace giant Boeing, with its extensive track record of involvement in the American space programme, and Musk's SpaceX outfit, relative upstarts in comparison, to return Americans to space in American rockets.

SpaceX – Space Exploration Technologies Corp – looked like being the joke candidate. But Musk has won this particular space race hands down, as Boeing's first manned flight is still a year away.

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SpaceX has already proven itself with a series of cargo flights to the International Space Station.

Tonight's first manned mission will be a triumph for Musk and his team, and will see some trademark showmanship.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will arrive at the launchpad in a gull-winged Tesla electric car. Their sleek spacesuits look like something out of a space designer fashion, and indeed are the work of a Hollywood costume designer.

And the space capsule in which they will ride, named Crew Dragon after the song "Puff The Magic Dragon," has touchscreens rather than the more familiar banks of switches, leading to it being compared to a flying iPhone (although not by the astronauts themselves).

The Falcon rocket takes its name from the Millennium Falcon spaceship in the Star Wars movies.

The capsule will return to Earth by splashing down in the ocean, something not seen since the 1970s.

SpaceX's programme has been characterised by Musk's flair for eye-catching, publicity-friendly touches. On the Dragon capsule's first test flight in December 2010 it carried a wheel of Le Brouere cheese into orbit in honour of a sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus (if you're interested, it was about a cheese shop which didn't sell cheese).

Secret

In 2018 Musk blasted his 100,000 dollar red Tesla Roadster into space. It has now travelled further than any car in history.

Not all of the SpaceX CEO's style has gone down well. After he smoked cannabis on a podcast streamed on the internet, albeit in California where it is legal, Nasa ordered a safety review of SpaceX.

Nor has everything gone smoothly during the SpaceX programme. A test version of the capsule was destroyed in a ground explosion last year.

As for the astronauts being blasted to the International Space Station tonight, Doug Hurley, aged 53, and Bob Behnken, aged 49, are both veterans of two Space Shuttle missions, with Hurley piloting the last shuttle mission of all in July 2011.

Before joining NASA, he was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the US Marine Corps. Behnken was a flight test engineer with the US Air Force.

In a return of a tradition of astronauts naming their own spaceships going back to the Mercury flights, the pair have chosen a name for their capsule, but were keeping it secret until today.

They will spend one to four months – the exact period has not been determined – aboard the orbiting lab, currently down to a three-man, half-size crew.

That last Space Shuttle flight in 2011 carried a special payload. It was a small American flag which was symbolically left on the International Space Station, to be collected at some future date.

If all goes to plan – and if is a big word when it comes to space flight – tonight America will be proudly waving the flag again.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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