SpaceX’s First Commercial Mission Wasn’t Without A Few Close Calls

SpaceX

SpaceX pulled off a historic mission in 2020, cementing Elon Musk’s place in the future of space exploration. Achieving a feat many years in the making, the SpaceX team sent astronauts into space and brought them back home safely. And while it was a landmark success, there was also a major unforeseen hiccup — that could have doomed the entire mission.

Looking To Mars

To understand the gravity of what SpaceX overlooked, it’s important to know what it’s trying to achieve. The company’s long-term mission is to actualize the colonization of Mars. Keeping that goal in mind, SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said, “This is really just the beginning. We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, then onto the moon, and then ultimately onto Mars.”

Getty Images / Bill Ingalls / Handout

The Mission

But first, the mission was to launch a craft called SpaceX Demo-2, also called the Dragon, carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station. Given SpaceX’s status as a commercial company, the world was keeping an extra close eye on how successfully they’d pull this off. They had a lot to prove.

Getty Images / Kevork Djansezian / Stringer

Pressure To Succeed

If all went well, SpaceX would get NASA Commercial Crew Program’s certification for the ability to complete further trips to the International Space Station in the future. Dragon had pulled off its first flight without any people on board. This time, astronauts were making the leap, so the stakes of ensuring their safety was an added layer of pressure.

Getty Images /David McNew / Stringer

The Astronauts

Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert ‘Bob’ Behnken were chosen for the mission, tasked with seeing the Dragon spacecraft through each groundbreaking step of the process: the launch, landing successfully on the Space Station, and the most crucial, returning safely back to Earth.

NASA / Bill Ingalls

Next Generation Of Space Travel

It had been nine years since Americans experienced the collective joy of watching a manned rocket launch into space, and in that time, a lot had changed. After the shut down of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, the next generation of space travel shifted to the commercial sector. SpaceX made enormous strides as the first-ever commercial aerospace manufacturer, though it couldn’t do it alone.

NASA

Making History

SpaceX worked with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to make the first commercial space mission possible. In a year full of tragedy, Americans could delight in the achievement of sending people into space. A lot was riding on the success of their May launch date. After all, SpaceX has promised lofty plans — but they had to wait.

Getty Images / David McNew / Stringer

Postponed

The world was ready to see what SpaceX could do, but unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t as eager. After billions of dollars and years of preparation, the launch date was postponed for three more days due to weather conditions just 20 minutes before the expected takeoff.

Getty Images / Michael Reaves / Contributor

Blast Off

So, take two: on May 30th, 2020, everyone watched with bated breath as the Dragon prepared for launch at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. All 13.5 tons of the spacecraft lifted off without a hitch and disappeared into the sky. The first part of their mission was complete, though there was still so much room for things to go terribly wrong.

Getty Images / Bill Ingalls / Handout

Docked on Space Station

The next day, the Crew Dragon’s good luck continued. They successfully docked at the International Space Station the next day and the astronauts began the next leg of their 65-day mission. As the NASA website detailed, “Together, [Behnken and Hurley] spent more than 100 hours assisting or conducting science and technology demonstrations on station.”

NASA / SpaceX

Space Station Tasks

At the space station, Behnken and Hurley completed a number of tasks, from switching out samples in existing experiments like the Electrolysis Measurement that creates bubbles using electrolysis, to taking digital photographs for the Crew Earth Observations study. After two months of completing projects up in space, it was time to bring the astronauts home via a complicated process that posed its own hazards.

NASA

Splash Landing

The Dragon prepared for a splashdown, which is exactly what it sounds like. The capsule was set to land in the Gulf of Mexico just off Florida’s coast. Former astronaut Garrett Reisman shared the crewmember perspective, “All that energy you put in [during launch], you have to take every bit of that energy out when you come home,“ he told The Verge. Which is tough.

Twitter / SpaceX

Outside Their Experience

Both Behnken and Hurley had been to space before on a NASA Space Shuttle, so they weren’t completely green to the landing experience. There were several key differences on this mission: The craft itself was far smaller and gumdrop shaped, and neither astronaut had completed a splash landing. Despite some initial tech issues accessing the directions on their iPad minis, things started off according to plan. 

NASA

Slowing Down

On August 2, 2020, the astronauts hurdled towards Earth, taking steps to slow their 17,500 mph speed. They cast off the 6,400 lb trunk, then opened the nosecone of the craft. Next, their fire thrusters worked against the gravity of their freefall, until they reached the appropriate height to deploy the parachutes. 

Getty Images / Handout / Handout

Ignored the Warnings

The capsule containing the astronauts splashed into the water as planned, but the Crew Dragon wasn’t out of the woods yet. Celebrations were halted by the presence of something they hadn’t accounted for — boats full of cheering fans. Spectators ignored the repeated Coast Guard warnings in the days leading up to the landing, including that same day, to clear the area, which was a serious problem.

Flickr / NASA / Bill Ingalls

Substance in the Water

After shooing back the spectators, the rescue team got nearer to the capsule and noticed a bigger problem. A brown substance on the craft and in the surrounding water tipped them off the presence of toxic fumes. It was nitrogen tetroxide otherwise known as nitrogen peroxide, a hypergolic fuel that has the potential to spontaneously ignite.

Getty Images / Handout / Handout

Safety Delays

If even a small amount of nitrogen tetroxide is inhaled, it fatally rushes the lungs with fluid. Needless to say, they had to stay put in the capsule for a little while longer. While NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich assured everyone the amount of the chemical was still “within limits,” they waited for about 45 minutes for the fumes to dissipate, just to be safe.

Pool Photo by Jim R. Bounds-Pool/Getty Images

Disregard For Safety

During that stretch of time, spectators disregarded the orders and concerns about their safety, floating nearby. “That was not what we were anticipating,” administrator Jim Bridenstine declared in a briefing that was held soon after the capsule’s return. “After they landed, the boats just came in.”

Getty Images / Handout / Handout

Unacceptable Risks

As Steve Stich put it plainly, “Having passersby approach the vehicle close range with nitrogen tetroxide in the atmosphere, that’s not something that is good. And we need to make sure that we’re warning people not to get close to the spacecraft in the future.” So, while the spectators were adding unnecessary danger for everyone, how were the astronauts holding up?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Astronauts React

Meanwhile, inside the capsule, the astronauts had no idea that the passerby were too close for comfort. They were updated as they were ferried away on the rescue boat, leaving them unimpressed. Behnken said, “Just a word to the wise for folks who have ideas of coming that close again in the future. We take extreme precautions to make sure it is safe, and we do that for a reason.” 

Getty Images / Handout / Handout

The Feeling of Landing

Aside from the misbehavior of the crowd, the astronauts opened up about the actual feeling of plummeting towards Earth and splashing to safety. They admitted it was more intense than what they expected, as Behnken described, “It felt like we were inside of an animal.” The sights, the one of a kind sound, all punctuated by the surreal feeling of hitting the waves.

Getty Images / Handout / Handout

What To Expect

It was “very much like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat,” Behnken said. Those descriptions will no doubt inspire many future Hollywood blockbusters, but it’s more useful to the next round of astronauts prepping to take similar missions.

Getty Images / David McNew / Stringer

The Dragon’s Future

With the mission is technically over, the SpaceX team dove into the next leg of the journey, which will no doubt take an even longer amount of time — pouring over all the data. The Dragon proved itself safe and capable, but SpaceX wasn’t the only manufacturer contracted by NASA to collect data.

Getty Images / Handout / Handout

Boeing vs SpaceX

NASA had not just contracted SpaceX for the trip to the International Space Station. NASA also contracted Boeing to build ships that could fly American astronauts to the International Space Station, without needing Russia for rides. This pitted the two rival companies against each other to the United States to the next phase in space exploration.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Flight Delays

But, due to software and hardware failures, Boeing was already a year behind schedule. To catch up to the brainiacs at SpaceX, engineers needed to work overtime to bring their spacecraft up to the quality necessary to reach space. There could be no flaws in the plan. But then Commander Christopher Ferguson made an announcement.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Astronaut Christopher Ferguson

“I want to share with you a difficult and personal decision I have had to make,” astronaut Christopher Ferguson (right) said on Twitter on October 7, 2020. “I have chosen to step aside as commander of the crewed flight test scheduled for next year.”

NASA

Dedicated

“I am deeply committed to human spaceflight,” he continued. “I’m dedicated to the Starliner program, and I am passionate about the team that has built her.” Viewers couldn’t believe what they were hearing. This man had practically lived in the sky up to this point!

Christopher Ferguson / Twitter

Earning Education

See, Ferguson’s path was one of dedication to the United States of America. After graduating from Drexel University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1984, Christopher joined the Navy, where he learned to fly aircraft. In that role, he played hero plenty of times.

US Navy

Navy Missions

With a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering, Ferguson was given many opportunities to fly. He joined the “Checkmates” of VF-211 in 1995, deploying to the Western Pacific/Persian Gulf in defense of the Iraqi no-fly zone onboard the USS Nimitz. He nearly spent more time in the sky than on the ground.

America’s Navy / YouTube

Above The Clouds

In fact, altogether, Ferguson accumulated 5,700 flight hours in more than 30 aircraft types, making him more than qualified to embark on several journeys into space. In 1998, he joined the Johnson Space Center, putting all his experience to work.

NASA

Geek Squad

Ferguson handled technical duties associated with the center’s shuttle’s main engine, external tank, solid rocket boosters, and flight software. Soon, he made his debut piloting rockets into the abyss of space as an astronaut.

Christopher Prentiss Michel / WikiCommons

Flying High

Throughout his time at the Johnson Space Center, Christopher Ferguson logged more than 40 days in space. From November 2009 to September 2010, he served as deputy chief of the Astronaut Office until his retirement from the Navy in June 2010 and from NASA in December 2011. He wouldn’t stay away for too long.

NASA

Back For More

In 2011, Ferguson joined Boeing, the American multinational corporation that designs, manufactures, and sells aerial technology including airplanes, rockets, and satellites. Several years later, Christopher became the Starliner test pilot.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Pressure

But then, presented with a career high — a private-company spaceflight — he backed out! According to a press release, Ferguson had become an “integral part of the Starliner program, and as much as this was an honor for him, he couldn’t do it. He finished his Twitter message by explaining the reasons behind his controversial decision.

NASA / Joel Kowsky

New Crew

On his journey toward becoming an astronaut, Christopher explained, he met Sandra A. Cabot. They soon fell in love and decided to tie the knot. Since then, they raised three children and were a very happy and loving family.

NASTAR Center / Facebook

Family Support

In fact, Ferguson’s family supported him through all his endeavors. They even cheered him on when it was announced that Christopher would be commander of Boeing’s first test flight to space. So, even they were surprised to hear his reasoning for pulling out.

NASA

An Important Time

“Next year is very important for my family,” Christopher told the Twitter universe. “I have made several commitments, which I cannot risk missing. I’m not going anywhere – I’m just not going to space next year,” he said, for those worried he was leaving Boeing — and space — altogether.

Picryl

Future Endeavors

It was true: The Ferguson family had important milestones coming up, including the wedding between Christopher’s daughter and her fiancé. Wanting to see the blushing bride, Christopher felt torn between his dedication towards his country and his dearly beloved family. The reactions to his announcement were unexpected.

via reddit

Surprise Reaction

Even with how important Boeing’s space mission is, people wholeheartedly understood where Christopher was coming from and even praised his choice. Some talked about the importance of family, others about safety and the concerns of Boeing’s failing technology. Boeing, however, was left scrambling.

NASA

SpaceX Pressure

Already behind SpaceX in the private space launch, the manufacturer needed to replace their commander STAT, or else they would fall flat in this modern-day space race. Officials needed to pick someone close to the Starliner program, and they knew who to look to.

Pixabay

Setting The Future

A new commander was chosen for the mission: NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore. “Having had the chance to train alongside and view this outstanding crew as backup,” he said. “has been instrumental in my preparation to assume this position, will be in Ferguson’s place.” They had a special role for Christopher, too.

NASA

Continued Dedication

Christopher Ferguson would serve as the director of Mission Integration and Operations, ensuring systems perform to the expectations of NASA’s astronauts and support them as they complete their training. The team had been reshuffled successfully — but then Boeing got terrible news.

NASA

SpaceX Wins

In November 2020, SpaceX officially won the unofficial space race, launching a spacecraft with four American and Japanese astronauts to the ISS; even worse, another unexpected competitor was making headway in the space travel game.

NASA/Joel Kowsky