SpaceX and NASA are both participating in an exceptional media blitz on the verge of Crew Dragon’s orbital launch debut, sharing dozens of detailed photos and videos documenting the advanced spacecraft’s many years of development and its brief final voyage out to Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A).
Scheduled to attempt its first launch at 2:48 am EST (07:48 UTC), March 2nd, CEO Elon Musk has already teased one significant part of a spectacular, hosted webcast SpaceX has prepared for the milestone launch, arguably the biggest step the company will have taken towards its foundational goal of “making humanity a multiplanetary species”. Riding along on the uncrewed demonstration mission will be a test dummy – Starwoman – known as Ripley, a close relative of the Starman character now orbiting the sun in deep space.
Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rolled out to the launch pad ahead of the spacecraft’s first test flight. Liftoff targeted for 2:49 a.m. EST on March 2 pic.twitter.com/Dud93ZrkgH
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 28, 2019
Coming straight off of SpaceX’s February 21st Falcon 9 launch of commsat PSN-6 and Spaceflight’s GTO-1 rideshare, the contrast with the media presence behind Crew Dragon’s launch debut is stark. Regular SpaceX launches have grown into a routine distribution of official behind-the-scenes photos: one photo of Falcon 9 vertical on the pad after the rocket goes vertical, a hosted webcast with excellent live views of the mission, high-quality launch photos taken by SpaceX or contracted photographers, and – less frequently – a rare photo or two of the booster’s landing. NASA-led launches are a different story entirely, followed by USAF missions in a distant second place.
SpaceX and @NASA have completed thousands of hours of tests, analyses, and reviews in preparation for Crew Dragon’s first test flight to the @space_station pic.twitter.com/JvJqeoLKVy
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 28, 2019
Particularly so given that NASA has funded 99-100% of Crew Dragon’s costly development, SpaceX customers can typically reserve the right to request special views and even post photos of their own in launch or program contracts. As a civilian federal agency, NASA is largely obligated to share photos, insofar as they generally play nice with arms trafficking regulations like the US’ ITAR. For any number of reasons, SpaceX has become noticeably less keen on sharing photos of its milestones and more routine operations, regardless of whether or not a given subject is likely to raise the ire of ITAR.
While the company still shares far more than they technically have to (i.e. nothing), competitors like ULA tend to share far more even for extraordinarily security-conscious National Reconnaissance Office launches. Regardless of the company’s reasons, to which they have every right, the floodgates have been opened in the two or so months that have built up to Crew Dragon’s inaugural launch.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 1, 2019
Combined, NASA and SpaceX have shared dozens of extremely high-quality photos of Falcon 9, Crew Dragon, and the general behind-the-scenes work required to make every launch (including this one) happen. SpaceX has also offered numerous rare glimpses into those processes, including rocket’s roll-out to Pad 39A and a brief 60-second overview featuring clips of much of the Crew Dragon development work that has been ongoing for 5+ years.
Onwards and upwards
Put simply, this mission may be the most important launch since SpaceX graduated from Falcon 1 to Falcon 9 almost nine years ago. Founded by Elon Musk with a single-minded purpose of creating cost-effective, reusable rockets that could allow or at least motivate humans to one day reach Mars, the pursuit of human spacecraft has been on the minds and agendas of Musk and SpaceX since the company’s 2002 formation. If Crew Dragon’s orbital debut is successful, SpaceX will have taken the biggest step yet in the direction of those lofty aspirations, thanks in large part to the funding and expertise bestowed upon the company through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
While SpaceX technically owns and operates it, Crew Dragon is a fundamentally NASA-owned vehicle with respect to fundamental capabilities and limitations baked into its design. The countless hundreds of thousands of hours of experience derived from developing Crew Dragon will, however, feed directly into Starship, a spacecraft that will very nearly be SpaceX’s and SpaceX’s alone, from a blank sheet of paper to Mars (fate permitting).
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