Are you ready for “Launch America?” In what’s going to look like a mix of Star Trek and Apollo 11, NASA and SpaceX have come up with an iconic mix of futuristic and retro styling for the first launch of US astronauts from US soil since the Space Shuttle’s final mission in 2011.
When is ‘Launch America?’
The big day is Wednesday, May 27, 2020 when, at 16:33 EDT/20:33 GMT, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will blast-off from Pad 39A—Apollo’s old pad—at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. It will carry a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule containing two NASA astronauts—Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken (now in quarantine)—on their way to the International Space Station (ISS). For the last nine years all astronauts have had to hitch a ride to space on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Where to watch ‘Launch America’ streamed online
“Launch America” is going to be some moment, but it’s what NASA and SpaceX has planned beforehand that will have TV audiences hooked.
With Apollo-era visuals—and even old NASA logos—tempering futuristic new space suits and an all-new way of getting the astronauts to SpaceX’s (reusable) rocket, the made-for-TV pre-amble to the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is going to be packed with iconic sights. “It’s all going to be a neat blending of the old and the new,” says Garret Reisman, SpaceX Senior Advisor and former NASA astronaut on the Space Shuttle, who was involved in SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program from its inception in 2011.
Based on an animated video published by SpaceX and a dress rehearsal that took place on May 17, 2020, here’s how the big day will unfold—and the iconography you can expect:
Iconic image #1: Exit from crew quarters
The doors to the crew quarters will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched on TV any spaceflight launch from the Kennedy Space Center—something that’s not happened for almost a decade. “They’ll suit-up and come out the same iconic doors as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins did for Apollo 11—and where all of us that flew on the Space Shuttle walked out of,” says Reisman.
Hurley and Behnken are expected to exit through those doors about three hours before launch.
Iconic image #2: Futuristic spacesuits
That blast from the past will be combined with a look to the future because Hurley and Behnken will be dressed in very distinctive new space suits. “That’s intentional—we know that the images of the crew coming out of that door, and then getting into a new vehicle, is going to become iconic, so we wanted to make it better looking,” says Reisman. “It wasn’t hard to do, it just turns out that nobody ever really tried—in the past space suits were designed without any thought of how they look, so we put some effort into that.”
“I think it shows.”
Iconic image #3: A Tesla Model X ‘astrocar’
Now comes a big difference to any previous mission from Kennedy Space Center; the replacing of the “astrovan” for the nine-mile trip to Pad 39A, as tweeted by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Instead of getting into that retro shiny silver Airstream RV that took us to the launch pad they’ll be using a Tesla Model X,” says Reisman. Given that SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk sent a Tesla Roadster into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, this should hardly come as a surprise.
Iconic image #4: A futuristic astronaut walkway
After stepping out of the Tesla Model X, the modernity theme continues with a sci-fi-style 85ft. crew access arm—complete with windows—that the astronauts will walk down as they leave Pad 39A’s tower to enter their Crew Dragon capsule on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
Iconic image #5: The return of the NASA ‘Worm’ logo
Now comes another iconic moment for the Falcon 9 rocket, which will wear a special NASA logo, probably for this mission only. Not used since 1992, NASA’s iconic “worm” logo is being used to mark the return of human spaceflight from American soil on American rockets.
Iconic image #6: The Crew Dragon capsule
Yes, it looks a little like the capsules used in the Apollo missions, but Crew Dragon is a big upgrade both on those and on the Cargo Dragon capsule that SpaceX has been using for cargo resupply missions to the ISS since 2012. The most obvious upgrades are the seats, the control panels, the space suits, the life-support system and the communications system.
However, the biggest visual difference to Cargo Dragon is that Crew Dragon doesn’t have the iconic fold-out deployable solar panels once it gets to space. “We’ve gone for a more robust design where the solar panels are permanently mounted on the trunk—it’s one less thing to worry about,” says Reisman.
“One of the things SpaceX does really well from an engineering perspective is to keep things simple.” Complexity is expensive to manufacture, so not sustainable, but those solar arrays were always a worry on Cargo Dragon, according to Reisman (though they worked every time).
Iconic image #7: The return of a reusable rocket
How about seeing the return of the first reusable rocket in a crewed spaceflight? That’s a proper landmark moment, and it will take place a few minutes after liftoff as the Falcon 9’s first stage booster separates from the upper stage and returns to Earth. It will land—hopefully—on a SpaceX barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
What if it all goes wrong?
Hopefully we won’t see this on May 27, but it’s good to know that Crew Dragon is fitted with a Super Draco launch escape system. It’s actually the biggest difference between Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon. Comprised of eight large Super Draco engines, it can take the capsule to safety if there’s a problem with the Falcon 9 rocket, whether that’s on the launch pad or at anytime through to the second-stage separation. It was tested on January 19, 2020. “It’s not something we had on the Space Shuttle,” says Reisman.
Even after a perfect launch in the largely autonomous Crew Dragon vehicle, the astronauts will have challenges. The flight-plan includes a manual flying demo, but it’s what the flight plan doesn’t include that’s going to be most critical of all. “Despite a very rigorous testing and certification process they’re still on the first flight of a new vehicle with complex systems, and there’s always the potential that something unexpected may happen,” says Reisman. “For Bob and Doug it’s about taking care of anything that happens that’s unplanned. That’s always the case for human spaceflight.”
If all goes well, Crew Dragon should arrive at the ISS around 19 hours after its launch—so that’s around 11:30 a.m. EDT/15:30 p.m. GMT on May 28, 2020.
As well as being iconic, the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission has the potential to be a welcome boost to America. “People are hungry for bit of good news,” says Reisman. “This mission has been a long time in the making and it’s the culmination of a huge effort.”
If, for any reason, the mission is called-off on May 27, there’s a back-up launch window on May 30.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.