One Week Today

20th May 2020

At 8.32 pm UK time to be specific, something will happen in Florida that hasn’t happened since the seventies. 

So why you ask is there a piece about spaceflight on Across The Line? The site is, in my own words, dedicated principally to “cricket and other sport”. But I gave myself the get outs of “travel, photography and anything else that grabs my attention”. As there isn’t much of the first two going on in my life at present, I thought I’d head off on a tangent to my boyhood love of all things space.

Yup as a primary school kid I was, to put it mildly, obsessed with Space. I remember Apollo 8, the first journey to the moon and the excitement of every mission through to the last madded landing on the moon, Apollo 17. Followed every detail of every flight, read and listened to anything I could. Still do.

But from the early seventies things went very quiet. Yes there were the numerous shuttle launches (and the terrible tragedies) but, for me, nothing could recapture the thrill of a rocket launch. 

It speaks volumes for the achievements of NASA in the sixties and seventies that we have not seen anything similar since. I accept there were the inherent financial issues, and that the political imperative created by the earlier humiliations the US suffered in its space programme up against the USSR but it is a shame that all we have to show for the last 45 years is the ISS.

Man was made to explore. Orbiting the earth is a huge achievement but it is not going back to the moon or beyond.

So the launch on Wednesday27th May of a US rocket from the legendary Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral with two NASA astronauts on board is a huge deal. The last time such a launch took place was in July 1975 when an Apollo crew flew into orbit to dock with its Soviet Soyuz contemporary. 

But when Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lift off atop Space-X’s Falcon 9 rocket they will be starting a new era in US space travel. On the most basic strategic level a successful outcome next Wednesday of what is officially called Crew Dragon Demo-2 will remove the world’s reliance on the Russian rocket system which has been the sole means of access to the ISS.

The use of 39-A for the launch has several nostalgic connections. It was from this pad that all the moon missions launched and from which Doug Hurley flew STS-135, the final mission of the Space Shuttle in the summer of 2011. 

Since then Space-X have acquired the rights to use the pad and have converted in to accommodate it’s Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets which will form the foundation for this first phase of manned launches.

If all goes according to plan Hurley and Behnken will arrive at the ISS around 19 hours after launch. The length of time the two Americans will spend at the orbiting station is as yet unknown. A further manned launch by Space-X is scheduled for the 1st September. USCV-1 will comprise a crew of four also bound for the ISS.

Thereafter NASA has been understandably guarded about their plans but make no mistake the ambition clearly stated in recent months is for a manned return to the moon within four years.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to the Apollo missions to get a perspective on what Crew Dragon Demo-2 actually is.

The flight of Apollo 7 was the first manned version following the tragedy of 27th January 1967, when NASA lost the crew of Apollo 1. A “plugs-out” test of that spacecraft resulted in a fatal fire. Three astronauts were lost. NASA had to spend the next 18 months redesigning their craft component by component.

In early October 1968 Schirra, Cunningham and Eisele carried out an 11 day test of the spacecraft and its systems in low-earth orbit. NASA was outwardly delighted with the mission which, it said, achieved all its stated goals. But behind the scenes this was a most acrimonious flight. Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 and a veteran of two previous flights conducted a running battle with the NASA heirachy and mission control. None of the three crew on that mission flew again.

Incredibly 9 months and 9 days later Armstrong and Aldrin. touched down on the surface of the moon!

While a trip to the moon, let alone a landing, is not going to happen within this timescale there is every hope that over the next couple of years man will, once again, leave earth orbit.

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