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What the SpaceX launch means for America’s space program

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida early Saturday on its way to the International Space Station. If the mission is successful, NASA astronauts could head into space from American soil later this year for the first time since 2011. Loren Grush, a senior science reporter with The Verge, joins Hari Sreenivasan, to talk about the launch's significance.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Just before 3 a.m. today a SpaceX rocket carrying a capsule known as Crew Dragon lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The capsule is designed for astronauts, but on this mission it's carrying only a so-called "smart dummy" named Ripley, designed to gather data about how the flight might affect human occupants. The Crew Dragon is now in orbit and will attempt to dock with the International Space Station tomorrow. If successful, it could mean NASA will use privately built spacecraft for future missions as soon as this summer. Joining us now from New Orleans, where she has been monitoring Crew Dragon, is Loren Grush, senior science reporter for The Verge. Why is this such a big deal?

  • Loren Grush:

    You know since the space shuttle program ended in 2011 NASA has only really had one option for getting its astronauts to the International Space Station. And that has been the Russian Soyuz rocket and it's not been a great arrangement because it's expensive it costs NASA eighty one million dollars per seat to get just one astronaut to the International Space Station and it's limiting the only have that one option. So if this was worth it to go out of commission then we wouldn't have a way to get our astronauts into space. But with the commercial crew program is about bringing the human spaceflight program back to America. These capsules are built by U.S. companies and when they launch people that will be the first time since the space shuttle program that NASA astronauts have launched from American soil on American made the animals once again.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When we saw this rocket lift off it was kind of a throwback. I mean these capsules look like the capsules that we saw in the early parts of the space program. They were kind of designed to do one thing versus a space shuttle which was designed to do lots of things when it comes to how to build a capsule.

  • Loren Grush:

    When it comes to how to build a capsule there is really a good design for how to launch a space and then how to bring it back again. So you know the capsule design is kind of dictated by you know the best way to get to and from the International Space Station. But yes it is quite reminiscent of the early capsules that we used to build.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But is there a longer term vision here. If this goes well and again this is the big if. I mean this is just part one. So let me talk about that a little bit. Getting into space wasn't the hard part. There are a couple of kind of intricate maneuvers that have to happen. Usually the space station reaches out and grabs whatever is coming to it. But this is supposed to happen automatically?

  • Loren Grush:

    Right. So a big difference between this capsule and the Dragon cargo capsules that SpaceX has been sending to the International Space Station since 2010 those are bursts to the ISS which means that yes a robotic arm operated by a crew member grabs the capsule and then brings it on to the space station where it is then attached. But these capsules automatically docks with a series of lasers and sensors to find the a docking port on the outside in the International Space Station. And then it just automatically moves toward it and then attaches on its own. And that's something that SpaceX has never demonstrated before. So if they can pull off that maneuver which is slated for tomorrow then that's going to be a very big deal because that's going to be how they bring astronauts to the International Space Station in the future.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And then finally it's going to have to hang out there for about a week and then splash down the old fashioned way in the middle of the ocean on Friday, right?

  • Loren Grush:

    Right. It's not going to stay for very long just a few days but the three crew members on board the International Space Station right now, they'll go inside the capsule now bring out some cargo that it brought up with it. Also packed it with cargo. They're going to run some tests to see how it's faring in the space environment. Now is it sturdy. Is it doing what it's designed to do. And then on Friday morning after all is said and done it will end up slowly and then reenters atmosphere and then a series of parachutes will deploy to slow the capsule descent to the earth and it will splash down in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida. If all goes well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright, Loren Grush of The Verge, joining us via Skype. Thanks so much.

  • Loren Grush:

    Thanks for having me.

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