SpaceX Astronaut Launch: Curiosity, science and the Red Planet


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft take off from the Kennedy Space Center on the first orbital spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

Two veteran NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rocketed away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday to begin a test flight of a new commercial spaceship designed, built and owned by SpaceX. With spacecraft commander Doug Hurley in the left seat and veteran astronaut Bob Behnken to his right, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (1922:45 GMT). It marks a ‘new era’ as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched on the first mission from Florida’s Space Coast with astronauts on-board, since the final space shuttle lifted off July 8, 2011. After that the Space Shuttle program ended.

“A wave of showers and thunderstorms pushed through the spaceport and skies cleared sufficiently to allow the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to take off at Saturday’s instantaneous launch opportunity, a one-second window determined by the location of the space station’s orbital track. The long-awaited return of human spaceflight to the Florida spaceport marked just the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts flew into orbit on a new type of spacecraft, and the first time since the inaugural space shuttle launch in 1981.”

Nine minutes later, the astronauts were in orbit, ending a nearly decade-long gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability that forced NASA to pay the Russian space agency for rides to the space station on Soyuz spaceships. Previously NASA shuttle program operations were only exclusive to NASA. Since 2011, NASA has been relying on the Russians and had doled out 4 billion dollars to transport US astronauts to the International Space Station. This is the first time that NASA has collaborated with a private company to send astronauts to the Space Station.

A previous launch attempt Wednesday (May27) was scrubbed due to threat of lightening in the atmosphere over the Kennedy Space Center.

According to the NASA website, “the commercial crew capsule on top of the rocket is designed to carry four people to the International Space Station under contract to NASA. The test flight by Hurley and Behnken — slated to last one-to-four months — is the final shakedown cruise for the SpaceX crew capsule before regular operational missions can commence.”

It was an incredible feeling seeing the lift off after 9 years from the U.S. soil. With the sending off a rocket the nation has marked a new milestone. It was a welcome change to be a part of this experience as there is not a lot of good news in the country right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rocket launch gives hope that the escalation of the riots and unrest throughout US cities will end soon. In the past, during a rocket launch, at least 1,500 people had flooded the Kennedy Space Center’s grounds to see the final lift off. Because of the pandemic social distancing has to be maintained, and therefore, the Saturday launching was a low-key event. The US president and vice president were there to watch this historic launch from a roof top. It was nice to see astronaut Scott Kelley weighing in as a guest commentator while talking to CNN during the launching. This historic mission and joint collaboration between SpaceX and NASA has paved the way for future adventures in cheaper rockets made by SpaceX.

In the 21st century, human curiosity paired with the scientists’ infectious inquisitiveness has taken space program into a whole different level. Since the Apollo Mission in 1969, the US space program went through major overhauls in exploring space.

Curiosity is an innate and deeper drive as it forms the very basis of awareness or sense in any life form. Evolution has evolved for centuries; as a result, we humans have the advantage over other living species. Therefore, with human curiosity, we have hunger-for-knowledge and we have become learning machines. In our individual life journey, a healthy dash of curiosity helps us to take full advantage of this instinctive learning capacity, in gratifying our imagination.

I have been a student of humanities and then studied English literature and history, and was in perfect harmony with the arts. I have built skills in writing and critical reading. At the risk of going against the hypothesis, I think a science and humanities student’s brain is not that different. As a result, all my life, I have pondered about Astronomy and the mysteries surrounding the solar system.

Space explorations, and in particular, why Mars has always been a source of inspiration for scientists and explorers, have enchanted me. Having found a life partner, a physicist, has further enlightened me. The arts and science boundaries are now blurred between us and at the same time we have maintained our own identities. I have seen him, as a graduate student, burning the midnight oil trying to uncover the final results of scientific calculations, at first, in Astrophysics, and then in theoretical Nuclear Physics. Those were interesting years while doing his PhD dissertation, followed by postdoctoral work, at NASA Langley’s Mars Mission Program in Space Radiation. His research work had to do with how to best prepare the astronauts for the challenges of the future long-duration flight and what kind of radiation impact they are going to face (I am only simplifying here.)

During those very busy and hectic early years, the coffee table in the living room of our house was crowded with the latest copies of Physical Reviews, children’s picture books and many good parenting guidebooks and the newest bestsellers to a few half-read old classics in American fiction (William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which Faulkner wrote in six-weeks, and took me almost six-months to finish.)

I remember thumbing through a lot of the incomprehensible scientific articles and had marveled idly what all those proofs and theories actually meant. I revered at the kind of impalpable desire and challenge that make the scientists push beyond the boundaries. I wondered looking at the articles of my unfamiliar territory; about what kind of approach those scientists took to be so ingenious to expand technology in proving how curiosity and space exploration are vital to human spirit.

Those types of curiosities and drive have emerged in me as any human’s primary need to know about the unknown. Thus far, I have been most fascinated with the exploration of Mars, otherwise known as the Red Planet.

Mars was the next destination for many within NASA as this planet had always held immense fascination for mankind. Voyages to the Mars have revealed many unexplained mysteries and people’s need to believe in the extraterrestrial elements which keeps this universe a place of wonder and amazement.

In August 2015, NASA’s Curiosity Rover took a picture of Mars where a slender woman-like figure ‘draped in a cloak’ was captured. There were many speculations about this single image and people were responding to such discussions incessantly. Therefore, one has to think about the possibility of life in Mars! On the internet people and the UFO Sightings went wild in trying to decode the mystery woman. The theories ranged from an ancient ghost looking at the Rover, to a statue left by another civilization, a mere shadow of a living creature to a piece of dirt caught from a different angle to make it look like a human figure, had filled the chat sites. For weeks, this image fed on people’s frenzy. It turned out to be, in all likelihood, a rock with its picture taken at an angle to look like a ‘woman draped in a cloak.’

Various new scientific studies have shown that “Conditions on Mars vary wildly from what we know of our own planet Earth. One fact stands out above all others: the possible presence of liquid water on Mars, either in its ancient past, or preserved in the subsurface today.” Where there is water, life is found in the vicinity. Recent evidence and analysis of salty water flows on the planet by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed that water (source and chemistry unknown) is present on the planet during the summer months. The salty lines/streaks are formed only in the presence of water in narrow channels (first reported in 2011) cut into walls of the cliffs on the Red Planet. Graduate student L. Ojha and colleagues created a computer program that could analyze individual pixels, and then correlate with images of the lines/streaks to find a 100% match, proving water played a role.

To dramatize the possibility of life in Mars, Hollywood screen writers, producers and directors in consultations with scientists and astronauts put on their thinking caps and have made amazingly realistic movies like the Gravity, Interstellar and the gigantic box office hit the Martian. All three movies have been made within the span of few years and they each stand as a testimony to human imagination in portraying the unknown planets/space/effects of Gravity. These also were some of the most commercially successful movies made in Hollywood’s history.

Two weeks ago, I watched again the2015 movie the Martian. In this Ridley Scott film, botanist astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left stranded on Mars by others who had to abort the mission due to a fierce sandstorm. Watney grows his own potatoes from water manufactured by a chemical process, and human waste. NASA and an International (Chinese) group of scientists plan a rescue mission, while the astronaut friends who had to abandon him (due to the sandstorm) plan a rescue endeavour of their own which succeeds with much courage, and sheer luck. The Red Planet looks realistic, with a few caveats noted by scientists who study it.

NASA’s Mars Mission Programme was scaled back drastically during the Clinton administration (1992 – 2000.) At the time, the US was going through a huge economic recession and therefore, space exploration was deemed as unnecessary by financing millions of dollars which could be used in solving the much more pressing issues of the day. Bill Clinton and the US Congress did not share former late president Ronald Reagan or George H W Bush’s pioneering American dream of exploring the unknown.

Since Obama became president, space exploration in particular the Mars exploration was not at the top of his agenda. His having to finance two major wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and fighting to eliminate the ISIS, he didn’t allocate any substantial funding for the Mars Mission to continue on a road of discovering a mysterious planet.

Obama very late in the game had tried to show some interest in science and space exploration. It was hard not to notice since most of the national dailies had front page coverage of Obama looking through a telescope that was set up on the south lawn of the White House, on October 19, 2015. He needed the aid of a high school senior (a budding scientist and Astronomy buff), named Agatha Sophia Alvarez Bareiro, from Brooklyn, New York who came to participate at “Astronomy Night.” This event was held to promote science and technology career among bright and scientifically curious high school students.

Out of two-hundred students and their parents, one important guest was 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, from Dallas, Texas who at the time got the name “Clock Boy.” Mohamed got arrested for bringing a homemade clock to his school. His teachers mistook it as a bomb, and had called the police. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing a NASA T-shirt and his picture went viral on social media networks and even caught the attention of the US president. Hence the invitation came from the White House for him to attend the Astronomy event.

To inspire the gathered group, Obama had told them that earlier he had spoken to astronauts living in the International Space Station. He boastfully advertised his administration’s record in science, and said that NASA is on track to “develop capabilities to send humans in Mars in 2030.” Obama was right about the NASA part, where the scientists have persistently kept on this exciting journey of Mars exploration. They have been going on with this ambitious undertaking for many years on a shoestring budget. At first, the scientific Robotic explorations have proven that Mars has the characteristics comparable to Earth’s. They are still working on the striking differences between the two planets that are yet to be fully understood. The NASA scientists are hoping that in 10 years’ time, humans will land there.

Hardly any credit should go to president Obama or his administration. Only the scientists, who were driven to explore this unknown planet are finding the profound answers, are the real voyagers of the Mars mission. They went on with this mission because of their inborn need to satisfy their own curiosity which entails in going above and beyond the ordinary. Vice President Mike Pence seems very interested in NASA and its programs. In a recent video call with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and astronauts Robert Behnken and Doughlas Hurley, Pence said, “America is leading in space once again.” It remains to be seen whether such enthusiasm becomes a reality in exploring the outer space as the final frontier.

Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA.




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