The Spacecraft Tarot: SpaceX Dragon

The Chariot is the drive that thrusts us forward.

Whatever it is that grips us with a feverish passion, that keeps us dreaming long after we have woken up — that is the Chariot. But it is not enough to have an idea of what we want. We must be willing to commit blood, sweat, and tears to emblazon our vision onto reality.

The Chariot itself is already reminiscent of a rocket. NASA’s Apollo Moon landing program was aptly named for the image of the mythical god Apollo, pulling the Sun along the sky with his chariot.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon is a spacecraft worthy of being compared to the Chariot. As a result of the creators’ unstoppable drive and incredible ambition, the Crew Dragon is the first vehicle designed, owned, and operated by a private company to provide human transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Since the first ISS crew arrived to the space station on Nov. 2, 2000, only two types of vehicles had carried human crew for twenty years of continuous human presence: NASA’s Space Shuttle and Roscosmos’ Soyuz spacecraft.

Although both the Space Shuttle and the Soyuz have gone through different of iterations and improvements, human transportation to and from the space station followed a pretty steady rhythm for the first ten years — the Space Shuttle launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or the Soyuz launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kaszakhstan.

The only exception followed the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on Feb. 2, 2003. A piece of insulating foam from the fuel tanks broke off during launch and created a hole in the wing of the shuttle, causing it to fall apart as it reentered the atmosphere about two weeks later. The crew did not survive. The Space Shuttle fleet was temporarily grounded while NASA was left to recover from what had happened. In that time frame, Soyuz picked up the slack.

The final mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program lands at Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. Image Credit: NASA/Kenny Allen

On July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis safely landed at the Kennedy Space Center after two weeks in space, officially concluding NASA’s Space Shuttle program. Human transportation to the ISS suddenly became limited to the Soyuz.

To lessen dependence on Roscosmos and the Soyuz, NASA began to implement the Commercial Crew Program that same year. Private companies competed against one another for the opportunity to create a new transport vehicle for the space agency, while NASA could focus its efforts on other endeavors — such as returning humanity to the Moon with the Artemis program.

In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX were awarded with contracts. Boeing began work on the Starliner spacecraft, and SpaceX got started on the Crew Dragon — closely related to the Cargo Dragon that the company had been contracted to transport science experiments, fuel, and fresh food to the ISS since 2012.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX is an aerospace company that aims to reduce space transportation costs in order to eventually build human colonies on Mars. The Crew Dragon is an automated capsule that can carry up to seven passengers.

Astronaut Anne McClain captured this image of the SpaceX Demo-1 mission approaching the International Space Station on March 3, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/Anne McClain

Both Starliner and Crew Dragon experienced delays on the way to the launchpad — however, SpaceX beat Boeing to the punch. Following a successful uncrewed flight test to and from the space station in 2019, SpaceX was ready for the next step: a crewed flight test.

On May 30, 2020, the Crew Dragon made history when NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken successfully launched to the International Space Station in the first commercially built spacecraft designed to transport humans. After docking to the station and living on board for about a month, Hurley and Behnken returned home in the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which the two of them had christened “Endeavour.” The feat represented decades of hard work, persistence, and ingenuity of both the NASA and SpaceX teams — especially considering that the Endeavour launched and landed in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The Crew-1 astronauts (from left to right: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichu Noguchi inside the Crew Dragon Resilience shortly after splashing down on May 2, 2021. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The successful flight test, also known as Demo-2, represented the ushering of a new era. Public-private partnerships officially opened up access to the heavens.

With the successful crewed flight test under its belt, the Crew Dragon vehicle was now available to be contracted for long-duration missions. Since then, two crews have made their way to the orbiting laboratory aboard the Crew Dragon. One of those crews, consisting of both NASA and JAXA astronauts, arrived home today in the Crew Dragon they named “Resilience,” in dedication to those who contributed to the mission in the midst of the pandemic. Crew Dragon is also currently scheduled to fly the first crewed mission of only private citizens in Fall 2021.

Just like the Chariot, Crew Dragon teaches us to not back down from our dreams. If they are wild and impractical, even better — the brighter they are, the harder you will fight for them. The Chariot has the ability to propel you higher than you ever thought possible.

Allow yourself to be carried.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propels the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station on May 30, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Every week I will be sharing a new card from the Spacecraft Tarot. For more information about the series, read this.

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