When is the next launch of the space rocket

NASA launches second attempt to fly US astronauts to the ISS

Cape Canaveral, Washington There are days when the Kennedy Space Center appears to have sprung from the somber fantasy of a science fiction writer. Then the 400,000 soccer field marshland on Florida's Atlantic coast simmers under a hazy tropical sun. Alligators lurk in the drainage ditches, and the empty launch ramps soar into the sky like the minarets of a sunken civilization that prayed to only one god: progress. This is what it usually looked like here in recent years.

And there is this Saturday. At half past two in the afternoon (local time), Air Force One touches down on the runway of the Space Center, the US President's sky-blue jumbo jet. Hundreds of people have set up their folding chairs on the nearby beach.

On the launch pad 39-A, from which the first astronauts took off in the direction of the moon, the star of the day is surrounded by white steam: a Falcon 9 rocket. At the top it carries a spaceship of the "Crew Dragon" type, with which two astronauts from the US space agency NASA are to take off for the International Space Station (ISS) at 3:22 pm (local time, 9:22 pm CEST).

But does the weather play along? A first attempt at take-off on Wednesday had to be canceled 17 minutes before take-off, too many thunderstorms near the flight path. For Saturday, the US Air Force's team of meteorologists has given the chance to start with 50 percent. Three quarters of an hour before the start they increase to 70 percent. It looks good. The access walkway to the spaceship swings to the side and the rocket is refueled.

It is the first time since the last launch of the space shuttle in 2011 that American astronauts are traveling from their own territory to the ISS. In the intervening years, they had to get a seat in a Russian Soyuz spaceship. The return of manned spaceflight to the US would be enough to make this Saturday a special day. But there are two other aspects that make the start seem historic.

Basic strategy panning for NASA

For the first time, astronauts are going into orbit with a private company. Rocket, spaceship and even the spacesuits come from SpaceX, the space start-up founded by Elon Musk in 2002.

For NASA, this is a fundamental shift in strategy. Instead of developing and operating capsules, rockets and lander itself, NASA now wants to have its equipment delivered by private companies - like an airline its jets. "We are facing an era in which flights to lower earth orbit will be completely privatized and in which different providers will compete with one another," says Jim Bridenstine. The former Republican congressman, promoted to the top position of NASA by Trump, has an MBA. You notice that sometimes.

With the launch of “Crew Dragon”, manned space travel is no longer just a business model in theory, but also in practice. With the electric car manufacturer Tesla, Elon Musk is already driving the established car companies in front of him. With his Falcon rocket, his Dragon spaceship and NASA as a customer, he now has the best starting position to revolutionize manned space travel.

The rocket launch is given additional symbolic significance by the crisis in the USA. Over 100,000 citizens have died from the corona virus. The unemployment rate is 15 percent. For four nights, riots have been shaking American cities because a white police officer killed a defenseless African American who was lying on the ground.

In view of this situation, today in Florida it is also about the quintessential American dream of reinventing oneself again and again, of emerging even bigger and stronger from every crisis that has been overcome. Just a few days before the first attempt at launch, Trump had decided that he wanted to be there himself in Florida. "A few years ago this was all about to close, and now we are number one again in what we do here," said Trump on Wednesday during his tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

Dream of a new start

He might as well mean the United States. “Launch America” is the official motto of the mission, and that is very close to Trump's slogan “Make America Great Again”. The dream of a new start emerges from the start.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to perform this restart. Two NASA veterans, 49 and 53 years old, one Colonel in the Air Force and the other in the Marine Corps. Both have already made two space shuttle flights. Both are family fathers, both married to astronauts. Hurley is the guy who orders a steak and fried egg at nine in the morning for his last breakfast on earth for the time being.

At the latest when the two put on their spacesuits in the “Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building”, it becomes clear that NASA is no longer setting the tone. “These suits are a fashion statement,” says ex-astronaut Jerry Linenger, commenting on the look of the 2020 space season. Trek episode. SpaceX employees help the astronauts to get dressed in black overalls, black gloves and black face masks.

The stylish atmosphere stands in a strange contrast to the ancient analog measuring devices and the gray linoleum floor in the building. That comes from a time when space travel was a matter of government and design was therefore not a competitive factor.

For 70 years the USA has been shooting rockets from the swampy plain at Cape Canaveral into space and with them stories about itself. It begins with the story of how the United States is challenged by the Soviet Union, which in 1957 put a beeping, medicine ball-sized satellite into orbit brought and then in 1961 the first human.

As a young American president announced the unimaginable in 1961: a person would be brought to the moon before the decade was up. How then in 1969 Neil Armstrong with the last step from the ladder of the Apollo lander made the promise of the meanwhile murdered John F. Kennedy come true and gave the American nation back the belief in its own uniqueness: “A small step for a person, a big one Leap for humanity. "

It was the era in which NASA staff, in the style of a command economy, gave all other authorities and companies involved precise specifications as to what they had to research, test, develop and build. Only in this way could the enormous effort of the Apollo program succeed.

All-rounder space shuttle

What was a success factor for the moon landing became the undoing of the follow-up project. With the space shuttle, manned flights into orbit should become an inexpensive routine and space travel should become a business model even then. At the same time, the space shuttle was designed from the outset to carry heavy spy satellites into space that did not fit on any of the available rocket tips. A total of five space shuttles were built, and by 2011 they had carried cargo and astronauts into space in 135 missions and enabled the construction of the international space station.

But the shuttle was neither cheap nor safe. In 1986 the space shuttle “Challenger” exploded when it took off - all seven astronauts on board died. A faulty sealing ring, through which hot combustion gases escaped, was to blame. In 2003, the “Columbia” broke when it re-entered the earth's atmosphere at 23 times the speed of sound. Again all seven astronauts died. The cause this time: a hole in the heat protection cover.

The space shuttle has not launched a commercial satellite into space since the Challenger disaster in 1986. Unmanned missiles did this job much cheaper. The space shuttle was supposed to be able to do everything and in the end it became too expensive for almost everything.

After the second accident in 2003 at the latest, the sense of manned space travel in the USA was in question. Several NASA follow-up projects were canceled. After the last shuttle launch, Cape Canaveral threatened to become a museum of America's past greatness for a few years - and a habitat for alligators. The launch pad 39-A was only a stopping point for the buses that take tourists across the site.

That changed with the Commercial Crew Program. It speaks for the decency of Trump's pupil and Nasa boss Bridenstine that he made it clear again at the beginning of the week: It was Trump's predecessor Barack Obama who cleared the way for it. In 2010, Nasa supported private idea sketches for a future manned spaceship with a comparatively modest total of 50 million dollars.

Over the years, the number of companies funded became smaller and the volume of funding increased. In 2014, NASA awarded $ 6.8 billion to build two spaceships: SpaceX's “Crew Dragon” and Boeing's “Starliner”. An unmanned test flight of the "Starliner" to the ISS failed in 2019 due to software problems. Musk's start-up is faster than the traditional company.

Spaceship like a Tesla

SpaceX already started the first manned test flight this Saturday. Behnken and Hurley cover the 14 kilometers to the launch pad in a Tesla X with white leather seats. At 1:15 pm (local time) the hatch of the “Crew Dragon” closes behind them. The interior of the spaceship is also like a Tesla: smooth white surfaces, hardly any switches. The "Crew Dragon" is the first spaceship in the world to be operated primarily via three touchscreens.

A few minutes before take-off comes the relieving message from the meteorologists: no thunderstorms in the flight path. The engines fire, the supply tower folds to the side, and the rocket shakes the roof terrace, from which Donald Trump is watching the take-off. When they reach weightlessness after a few minutes, the astronauts let a purple plastic dinosaur float through the spaceship.

Shortly after take-off, the maneuver with which Musk made technical history follows: The Falcon rocket is separated from the spaceship. But unlike conventional rockets, it does not burn up in the earth's atmosphere. Instead, the Falcon, gently braked by its own engine, lands vertically on the deck of a special ship in the Atlantic. Soon it will be ready for the next start.

Rocket recycling is what makes SpaceX satellite launches so cheap. But this bread-and-butter business of space travel was always only a means to an end for Musk. "SpaceX was founded with the idea of ​​bringing people into space," says Hans Koenigsmann, the German aerospace engineer who, as SpaceX's Vice President, is responsible for all rocket launches. "Even our first Cargodragon had a window so that we never lose sight of this goal."

It remains to be seen whether the private route into space is actually cheaper for NASA. In the end, NASA paid around 90 million dollars per astronaut for the seats in the Russian Soyuz capsules. For the first regular flights in the "Crew Dragon" 55 million dollars per astronaut and flight are under discussion. However, the billions in development costs that NASA contributed to will only be amortized after many starts.

Musk secures extra income

The decisive factor for the price per start will also be whether it actually succeeds in building up competition between different providers, or whether the authority is ultimately at the mercy of Musk as a quasi-monopoly. He has already secured the option of a nice extra income: Since Musk's spaceship has seven seats, but the NASA crews are usually smaller, Musk can give the remaining seats to paying passengers. SpaceX does not want to reveal the price yet.

In any case, the question of the meaning of manned space travel cannot be answered on the basis of the price. Its proponents like to point out that exploring and experimenting in space requires human creativity and spontaneity that a robot can never develop.

But in the end it is about something metaphysical that is difficult to justify with rational arguments. An American nation that is finally sending astronauts to the stars again assures itself of its own greatness, no matter how many people have just died of the corona virus and no matter how much the American cities are currently being shaken by unrest.

And astronauts who return from the stars and tell us about the beauty and coldness of space are like the shamans who once told the Stone Age people who were amazed by the campfire about the world beyond the next mountain.

Today, as it was ten thousand years ago, we occasionally need a reminder that beyond the swampy plain there are still boundaries to overcome. Because we are human. Because we can.

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