CRS-18 reaches orbit

A Dragon capsule carrying cargo for the ISS launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral at 2201 UT 25 Jul 2019

The manifest includes 25 new experiments, including a new 3D printer, with the impressive goal of proving the ability to print human tissues in a remote location, as engineers work toward the goal of printing entire human organs.

This launch also marked an impressive moment for booster reuse – the booster was used just two months ago, a new record for the Falcon 9 first stage. The capsule has also been reused for its third and final flight, though it last flew a comparatively languid 18 months ago, mainly because the Dragon 1 program is soon to be obsolete.

CRS-19 and CRS-20 will burn through the remaining active stock of Dragon capsules, after which the system will be retired in favour of Cargo Dragon 2. SpaceX will also have a new refurbishment facility in Florida for Crew and Cargo Dragon 2, and a goal to accelerate turnaround times. Cargo Dragon 2 missions will start in 2021, beginning with the CRS-21 mission. On the other hand, Crew Dragon 2 might well be able to fly by the end of this year.

LightSail2 mission unfurls solar sail

The Planetary Society mission control team at CalPoly San Luis Obispo confirms solar sail deployment on the LightSail2 mission (Credit: The Planetary Society/YouTube)

The Planetary Society is sailing a mission on pure solar power today, following the successful unfurling of a 32 square meter reflective sheet from the LightSail2 CubeSat.

The team confirmation came at 1850 UT 23 July 2019. Telemetry indicates the cubesat’s onboard motor controllers worked as planned. Onboard cameras took photos, which was confirmed in summary data but the larger image files are stored for later downlink, beginning with the satellite’s next orbital pass, at 2033 UT.

LightSail2 was a tertiary payload on the STP-2 mission launched on 25 June; it was itself deployed from a secondary payload, Georgia Tech’s Prox1 nanosat, a kinetic experiment platform.

To the next 50 years!

Aldrin and the LM (Credit: Neil Armstrong, NASA, Apollo 11)

Human spaceflight came to a crescendo on 20 July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Col. “Buzz” Aldrin piloted a strange, bug-like craft onto the rocky shores of an airless desert which no human had ever before touched.

They did so with the whole world watching; together with Apollo 8 before it, there was a new understanding of the Earth as a borderless sphere, a unique and fragile gem in an otherwise bleak and hostile universe.

Argentina and Brazil have celebrated the unofficial holiday “Friendship Day” on 20 July, at least in part due to the unique unifying experience of the whole world watching the moon landing together. Environmental movements were supercharged by the notion of the Earth’s biosphere as unique and irreplaceable. And the mass media would never be the same.

But as much as the moon landing was a triumph of human innovation and perseverance, it also is a wistful touchstone for human apathy. Despite its dramatic achievements, the Apollo program had been framed in a political context, with a clear finish line. And so it came to pass that Apollo program was, even in its own time, pared back from 9, to 8, to just 6 moon landings, with Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz eventually tacked on, made from the loose change and leftover hardware.

Since that time, spaceflight has focused on improving endurance. Apart from a brief though ill-fated dabble in partially reusable spaceplanes, a series of space stations have provided a vital test platform to see how astronauts endure 6 months or a full year in microgravity, honing one of many skills that will contribute to that often-discussed, rarely-funded goal of interplanetary human spaceflight. Moreover, along the way, we’ve learned a great deal about biology, physiology, physics, materials science, geology, and astronomy, among others, discoveries that have improved the quality of life for those back on Earth.

The next 50 years of exploration will only bring more knowledge. Scientists around the world are ready and willing to join the effort – asked to put a few thoughts together on the occasion of Apollo, Dr. Takashi Mikouchi, a professor who studies lunar and martian meteorites at the University of Tokyo, said “In the coming 50 years, I hope that we can obtain more samples from other solar system bodies, including Mars, to have a better understanding of the birth and evolution of our solar system.” If the state of the space industry today is any indication, those next 50 years are off to a hot start.

Even setting aside the leaps and bounds in small satellite technology that has already seen a whole new class of interplanetary probes, later this year, the United States will rejoin China and Russia on the list of nations able to send astronauts to space with its own launch systems. India’s manned space program is on track to fly astronauts in 2021. Europe and Japan are fully capable, should a proper crew capsule be bolted to the right rocket.

Immense talent and creativity of diverse ground teams around the world is at the ready for a new generation of dauntless human explorers. The time will soon come to once again break free of Earth orbit and set off for distant shores, and pioneer the promise of the space frontier.