NASA Astronauts Launch Into SpaceX Ship : Short Wave Tomorrow, two NASA astronauts are set to head up into space on a brand new spacecraft, built by the company SpaceX. The last time NASA sent a crew up in an entirely new vehicle was in 1981 with the launch of the Space Shuttle. Maddie talks to NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce about tomorrow's launch and how it compares to that earlier milestone. We'll also look at how this public-private partnership is changing the future of space exploration.
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Space Launch! (It's Tomorrow And It's Historic.)

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Space Launch! (It's Tomorrow And It's Historic.)

Space Launch! (It's Tomorrow And It's Historic.)

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Hey there. If you're new to the show, make sure to subscribe or follow in your podcast app of choice. That way you get new episodes every weekday. OK, onto the show.


SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Maddie Sofia here with NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, science correspondent. Hey, Nell.


SOFIA: It's been a long time. I'm glad to have you back on the show.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thanks for having me.

SOFIA: So you are here to talk about a historic space launch that's set for tomorrow.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. Two NASA astronauts are scheduled to blast off from Florida on a spaceship made by SpaceX.

SOFIA: So this is SpaceX, the private space technology company founded by Elon Musk.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. So SpaceX built this vehicle, you know, in partnership with NASA, but it's SpaceX's spaceship. And here's the big, historic thing to me. It's been almost 40 years since NASA sent a crew up in a brand new spacecraft.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The last time was in 1981. That was the first launch of the space shuttle Columbia.

SOFIA: Yeah. I missed that one, Nell. I'm going to be honest.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: How old were you then?

SOFIA: I was negative 8.


SOFIA: (Laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All right. So just for you, just to get you in the mood and, like, help you understand what those times were like, I thought we could play a little music.

SOFIA: All right. Let's bump it.


RUSH: (Singing) Lit up with anticipation, we arrive at the launching site. The sky is still dark, nearing dawn on the Florida coastline.

SOFIA: It's very spacey, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Have you ever heard this song before?

SOFIA: No. But I feel like it could tell you it was from 1981 if I didn't know that already.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 1982, actually. It's "Countdown" by Rush, and it's celebrating the inaugural space shuttle launch. And you can hear some of the actual voice communication in there between the astronauts and mission control.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have AEO abort (ph). Go for test. Tester says they are go for launch.

SOFIA: Oh, yeah.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: At the present time, we know of no major...

SOFIA: All right, I hear it. I hear it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All right, so the reason I wanted to play this for you is to kind of get you in the mood - like, sort of bring you back to that last time we launched a new spaceship from U.S. soil with NASA astronauts on board. You know, I've just been thinking about the differences and the similarities. I mean, that's a long time ago. And, you know, the music sounds very different. And I think one thing that song shows is that the public was way more engaged when it comes to launching people in spaceships back then.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, you know, when was the last time you heard NASA get a rock tribute like that?

SOFIA: Honestly, it's been too long, Nell.


SOFIA: (Laughter) So today on the show, we look at this launch coming up tomorrow through another space launch of yesterday. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, NPR's daily science podcast.


SOFIA: OK. So, Nell, we are talking ahead of the planned launch tomorrow of a SpaceX capsule. So that's a brand new vehicle called the Crew Dragon - great name. It's the first time NASA astronauts will fly on an entirely new spaceship since 1981. But that's just, like, one of the notable things about this launch.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. Yeah. So for SpaceX, this is a huge deal. It's the first time its vehicles have ever brought up people. And it's also the first time NASA astronauts have flown to the International Space Station from American soil since 2011.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You know, that's when the space shuttle program stopped flying.

SOFIA: So how have American astronauts been getting up to the International Space Station?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they've been going on Russian rockets. So, you know, they've been launching from Kazakhstan.

SOFIA: Right. Right. OK, so you wanted to get a little perspective on tomorrow's launch by looking at that 1981 launch. Where do we start?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, let's go back to April 12, 1981.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: T minus 10, nine...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That was launch day for that first mission, the first test flight of space shuttle Columbia.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Main engine start. We have main engine start.


SOFIA: I feel like I will always love this sound, Nell. I just get so excited when I hear it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: America's first space shuttle. And the shuttle has cleared the tower.

SOFIA: So if I was in the crowd, Nell, in 1981 in Florida and I saw that launch, what would I have seen? What would I have noticed?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, for people at the time, you know, the black and white space shuttle Columbia, it looked really strange. I mean, it looked like an airplane, kind of a fat airplane. And the country was used to bell-shaped capsules...

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...You know, the kind that the Apollo astronauts took to the moon in the 1960s and '70s.

SOFIA: Yeah. Those Apollo missions put the astronauts in those capsules at the top of, like, a long rocket - the Saturn V, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. Right. And so I talked to Wayne Hale. He was a NASA junior flight controller in 1981. He'd just come to NASA. He was 26 years old. And he actually watched the shuttle launch on TV in his bedroom because, you know, he'd just come off a pre-launch shift at Houston's mission control, and he'd been trying to catch a few hours of sleep. And he remembers being just startled by the brightness of the space shuttle launch and, you know, the speed.

WAYNE HALE: People in my generation grew up with, like, the Apollo missions. And the Saturn V just looked like it took forever to get clear of the tower. You know, it's very slow. And the shuttle just with those solid rocket motors just - pow. They were out of town.

SOFIA: So this 1981 launch with its airplane-like shuttle was a big technical leap. Can we see the same thing about tomorrow's SpaceX launch?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In some ways it kind of goes back to a more Apollo-style way of doing things. I mean, basically you've got, you know, a little bell-shaped capsule on top of a, you know, thin rocket. But unlike the days of Apollo, SpaceX wants its capsules and rockets to be reusable to cut down on costs. I mean, that's been the big goal of SpaceX from the beginning, to basically bring down the cost of spaceflight dramatically. And so, you know, that was something that the space shuttle was supposed to do, too. I mean, the space shuttle was reusable. And at the time, that was, like, a really, you know, novel idea.

SOFIA: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The space shuttle, if you've been in it, which I have...

SOFIA: Oh, a little brag. OK. OK.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I got to see space shuttle Discovery. And, you know, the cockpit looked like - sort of like an airplane cockpit you might have seen, you know, when you were a kid, like, peeking in the airplane cockpit. It's just, like, crammed full of switches and dials. But the SpaceX capsule is actually controlled with a - like, a sleek touch screen. It looks very, very modern.

SOFIA: Yeah. So this partnership between SpaceX and NASA, some people in the space industry think, like, this launch kind of marks a new era of space travel. How do you feel about that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, you know, you've got this private space company operating kind of a taxi service for NASA. And, you know, the whole idea behind NASA's Commercial Crew Program is that it would focus - NASA would focus on deep space exploration, like getting back to the moon or beyond. And meanwhile, you know, going up to low Earth orbit, which is just, like, 200 miles up, you'd rely on companies like SpaceX and Boeing, too, with its Starliner that it's developing. And so, you know, the idea is that you save taxpayer money and let NASA focus on the big stuff. And the thing about having these sort of like, you know, taxi service idea is that people outside of NASA will be able to be paying customers, too.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And you get this opening up of space as a, you know, accessible travel destination, you know, if you can afford to buy a ticket.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, there's already been talk of Tom Cruise catching a ride on a SpaceX capsule to go up to the space station and shoot, like, an action movie up there.

SOFIA: That sounds right. That sounds very American.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But again, when I hear stuff like this, I think whoa, like, history is really repeating itself. I mean, there were similar ambitions for the space shuttle back in 1981. That guy Wayne Hale I talked to, he went on to be flight director for dozens of shuttle missions, and he was the space shuttle program manager. And he remembers that back then, there was all this talk about how the space shuttle would revolutionize space travel.

HALE: And I remember that was part of the shuttle is we were going to take Walter Cronkite. My goodness. We were going to have journalists in space. We're going to take entertainers. I - this is going to really date me - we were going to take John Denver into space.

SOFIA: (Laughter) I have to say, I would like to have seen what John Denver would get up to in outer space. I'm just saying. But I didn't realize that that was the idea, that, like, all different types of people were going to be able to go up.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. Even teachers, right? OK, so - and as you remember, there was the Challenger disaster.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that whole citizens in space thing kind of ended with that disaster. And it turns out, you know, the shuttle was more dangerous and also more expensive than people had expected. It just flew far less often than NASA had originally hoped.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, are there any safety concerns about this SpaceX spacecraft?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, there's been a whole flight test with no people onboard. I mean, they sent this vehicle up last year with a mannequin, and it went to the International Space Station and successfully splashdown later. They also did a test of its abort systems earlier this year. They basically deliberately destroyed a rocket. You know, they failed the launch system...

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...To test out the astronaut escape system. So, you know, none of that was true for the space shuttle. There was no test flight for that one without a crew. When astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen flew that thing in 1981, it had never flown before. NASA had never flown anything like that before.

SOFIA: Yeah. So the safety situation is, you know, hopefully a little better - at least more well tested now, basically.


SOFIA: So - OK, any other 1981 final thoughts, comparisons?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The launch will be happening from the very same launch pad in Florida. But when the astronauts on the Crew Dragon, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, return to earth, they'll splash down in the ocean rather than coasting to a stop on a landing strip like the shuttle did.

SOFIA: Gotcha.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But they will have some familiar cargo. There's this American flag that flew on the first shuttle mission, as well as the last shuttle mission. It's been hung up in, you know, in the International Space Station for years waiting for a crew to launch from the U.S. and bring it back home.

SOFIA: So I think, like, the big obvious thing to think about is, like, in 1981, there was not a global pandemic that upended things. Do you know how the coronavirus is going to affect this launch?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA has definitely been discouraging people from coming to Florida to gather in big crowds to watch the launch. I mean, that's kind of a bummer for NASA. This is a huge deal for them, and they're basically telling people, you know, stay home.

SOFIA: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX and NASA have had to take all sorts of precautions with the astronauts during their training. Elon Musk has seemed kind of dismissive a little bit of the...

SOFIA: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...Concerns about the pandemic. He's made some comments on Twitter...

SOFIA: Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...You know, that have been critical of stay-at-home precautions. I recall in early March, he tweeted that the coronavirus panic was dumb.

SOFIA: Right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But the company's chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell, she said the astronauts have had to wear masks and gloves and limit who they're around. And, you know, I talked to Doug Hurley, the astronaut, a few weeks ago. And he was saying that, you know, even though they're focused on their training, like, they were still super aware of everything that was happening around them and, you know, just concerned about their families and, like, the whole world. So, you know, it's definitely been a thing this time around.

SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely. All right, Nell, you played us in with "Countdown." Is there a song we should go out on today?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I mean, I don't know. I'm sure that SpaceX will have some sort of musical component to this launch.

SOFIA: You know they will.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I feel fairly certain about that. When it did a test flight with a big rocket not too long ago, they put a red Tesla convertible into space. I don't know if you remember that.

SOFIA: I do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was kind of crazy. And during that launch, as they unveiled this bright red car in space with the blue and white Earth down below, they blasted David Bowie's "Life On Mars?" You know, so maybe something like that because that is the ultimate goal of SpaceX, you know, to make spaceflight common and affordable enough so that eventually we colonize Mars.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Oh, man. Look at those cavemen go. It's the freakiest show.

SOFIA: All right, Nell Greenfieldboyce, I appreciate you. Thanks for the jams.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thanks for the jams?

SOFIA: Yeah. Thanks for the...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What year is this again?

SOFIA: What? People say jam now, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I don't think they - well, we're supposed to be harkening back to the 1980s. All right. Whatever.

SOFIA: Nell...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You don't even remember that time.

SOFIA: ...Jams are in. Jam is back in. That's my jam. People say that now. The youths are saying it on Twitters.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All right. Whatever. You're...

SOFIA: (Laughter) I appreciate you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Goodbye. Should I do like a - like a more NASA goodbye would be like, ad astra, my friend.

SOFIA: (Laughter).


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Abby Wendle, edited by Viet Le, and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia, and you've been listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. See you tomorrow.

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