04 Aug 2020 17:24 IST

Elon Musk’s SpaceX shows how extreme science can work

It proves to the world that science, when properly implemented, can give predictive and flawless results

As Covid-19 cases rise worldwide, even in countries that had appeared to have tamed the spread earlier, few government actions, supposedly drawn from science, seem to make sense. Nearly ten months after the first Covid-19 death in Wuhan, China, there is still no cure. Several vaccines have entered trials but no one knows when one will be available for mass distribution. Some public health officials say that only herd immunity can fight the pandemic, but the majority aren’t agreeing to this yet. They argue for never-ending lockdowns, social distancing, and the wearing of masks. No one knows if the number of infected cases is more important or the fatality rate is.

There are no standards for testing either — each country is conducting different numbers of tests and drawing different conclusions. Meanwhile, each one of us is just a sneeze away from testing positive.

Some countries require international incoming travellers to quarantine at the airport for 14 days. Others, for seven days. Many countries don’t require quarantines. The US Supreme Court ruled that members of a church should not be allowed to congregate and pray, even at 50 per cent capacity. But the court granted casinos, restaurants, and other businesses permission to operate at 50 per cent of capacity with proper social distancing.

SpaceX a rockstar

Against this backdrop, Elon Musk’s SpaceX emerges like a rockstar proving to the world that science, when properly practised, can give predictive and flawless results. As the world witnessed on August 1 the first Crew Dragon capsule, with two humans, perfectly splashed down in the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, right on time and exactly as planned.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley came out of the capsule safely after completing a 62 day trip to the International Space Station (ISS) and were quickly flown to reunite with their families in Houston.

So many aspects of this mission were revolutionary. This was the first time that NASA was using a private commercial space company, SpaceX, to take its astronauts to space and bring them back.

The capsule blasted off on May 30 from Cape Canaveral atop SpaceX’s 2-stage Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful operational rocket in the world, capable of generating more than five million pounds of thrust at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Minutes after the successful launch, as the first-stage giant separated from the second stage rocket and the capsule, all attention turned back to the sea. After completing a series of complicated manouevres to attain perfection, the first-stage rocket safely landed face up on an autonomous recovery vessel. Both rocket and vessel are to be reused for another mission.

Automatic docking

Meanwhile, up in space, the Crew Dragon carrying the two NASA astronauts hurtled itself towards the ISS after successfully jettisoning the secondary stage rocket. And it perfectly docked with the ISS, 265 miles up above Earth, fully autonomously, without any input from its human passengers.

The automatic docking was a significant accomplishment for SpaceX. As Verge reported, the predecessor to the capsule, SpaceX’s cargo Dragon did not have this capability when it delivered supplies and food to the ISS. For all of those cargo missions, astronauts on-board the ISS had to use the station’s robotic arm, in a technique known as berthing, to grab hold of an approaching cargo Dragon and bring it onto a docking port. The Crew Dragon’s automated capabilities helped free up time for the ISS astronauts to work on other things as the new visitors arrived.

After 62 days of experiments aboard the ISS, the two astronauts packed up their bags, got into their jumpsuits, and strapped themselves into the Crew Dragon for its maiden voyage back to Earth. The undocking sequence was 100 per cent autonomous as well, as computers on-board fine-tuned a series of thruster firings to pull the Crew Dragon away from the ISS and safely into orbit.

For nearly 19 hours, the Crew Dragon circled around Earth at an orbital speed of 17,500 miles an hour, allowing the two astronauts to get some much needed rest.

Perfect splashdown

About an hour before splashdown, the Crew Dragon fired more thrusters to begin to fall back towards Earth. Twenty five minutes before splashdown, the capsule re-entered Earth’s heaviest atmosphere, somewhere over the Western Pacific. Its external surface heated up to a plasma of nearly 3,500 degrees fahrenheit — and by design — all communications with ground control were shut off for six long minutes. This was clearly the most dangerous part of the entire adventure. On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated at this very stage of space flight killing all seven crew members, including Kalpana Chawla.

But the Crew Dragon handled reentry with aplomb and with ground controllers pronouncing that everything was “nominal,” communications resumed. The craft made its way easily over the Gulf of Mexico as it rapidly descended towards Pensacola. First images were splashed across screens as a roving NASA plane sent down pictures.

Closer to Earth, two parachutes slowed the Crew Dragon down, and about 6,000 feet up, four giant parachutes opened up to slow the ship down to a speed of just six miles an hour. The capsule gently splashed into the water even as fast boats raced towards it to recover the Crew Dragon and the parachutes.

The whole mission was an outstanding example of what extreme science and engineering can do. There was no technical glitch from launch to landing — and NASA, as usual, invited the world to see science at work.

This columns doffs its hat to tens of thousands of professionals who made this flawless adventure possible — from concept, through design, engineering, manufacturing, testing, simulation and operations. Now, that’s something worth kneeling for.