SpaceX makes history

First commercial launch of astronauts reignites national interest

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

SpaceX makes historySpace junkies rejoiced with our return to the final frontier on May 30 — when the U.S. sent astronauts into space for the first time in nearly a decade, and Space X made history by taking them via commercial transport.

Launching from a bridge in Titusville, Fla., the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken in the Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.

The initial attempt on May 27, ultimately canceled on account of bad weather, reminded followers of how precarious and dangerous is our pursuit of space.

With China Lake’s decades of history playing a critical role in the aerospace corridor, and our proximity to the “Silicon Valley of Space” at Mojave Air and Space Port, Ridgecrest has always boasted a high concentration of NASA enthusiasts. But the weekend launch appears to have sparked that excitement in a new generation, as well.

“It was amazing to watch my kids get excited about things that I’ve been into since I was their age,” said Julie Martin, a flight-test engineer and mother of two.

“My son Luca [5] watched the launch, the docking at the ISS, and even did his own simulated launch while watching the live feed — laying on his back with a tablet on his lap just like the astronauts.

“We often watch the ISS fly over our house, so this a good way to bring it all together for our kids.”

Julie’s lifelong interest in space prompted her to apply for NASA’s “Vomit Comet” when she was a student at Missouri University of Science. She was selected for a crew to test welding technology in zero gravity, although she was not able to fly in the mission.

Her career path would intersect with NASA again when she was an ESDP on base, where she worked with some of the world’s premier parachute design engineers. “I even spent some time at Johnson Space Center in their space-shuttle mock-up.”

These experiences played into her enthrallment in the live feed over the weekend.

“I think it’s really neat to see the leap in technology between the shuttle and the new capsule. I’m used to seeing tons of buttons and switches all over the place. The sleek touch-screen displays were a large departure from the previous launch systems,” said Julie.

“You can tell SpaceX really has the vision for space tourism, instead of the traditional military ‘lowest bidder wins,’ and you make it work for the next several decades.”

“We were so excited to see the newest generation of American space flight!” said Joey Martin, Julie’s husband.

“As a kid growing up, both my wife and I would follow the space programs and pump our fists at the successes and cry with the nation when lives were lost,” said Joey.

“Seeing the modern design of the SpaceX Falcon rocket was really amazing. And to be able to follow along every step of the way through streaming platforms was truly amazing. So glad that we are back in space!”

“I’ve been interested in space and have wanted to be an astronaut ever since I can remember,” said Michael Petersen, an aerospace engineer who works on parachute systems for the Navy and NASA.

“When I was young, I read everything I could find about the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle and JPL robotic missions. I remember feeling disheartened when shuttle flights ended in 2011 with no clear successor … now we have three domestic orbital-class crew spacecraft. Three! Two to get crew to [ISS] and one to go beyond!”

Petersen praised the perseverance of NASA, SpaceX and other supporting organizations for overcoming failures and setbacks to get to this point. “Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we can still make progress.”

When SpaceX first began launching its rockets in 2006, the first three attempts failed. But the company was able to scrape up enough money for a fourth, which was successful — making the Falcon the first privately funded rocket to reach orbit. “Never, never, ever give up. Innovate, adapt, overcome, learn, grow.” The success this weekend was just a milestone, he said, not the end.

Rochelle Caravalho, another local flight-test engineer, was “glued to the screen” over the weekend. Every element of the event — from the work and training and trust that goes into the launch to the unimaginable pressure of pulling Gs — is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating, she said.

“And just the thought of how commercial space flight itself will change our world is pretty intense,” she said. “There are so many ways this could really change our lives.”

Caravalho had a brush with NASA when she participated in the National Community College Aerospace Scholars program several years ago. After 10 weeks of online study, she and other students spent a week at JPL for their final project – completing a theoretical design, specs, budget and equipment list for a mini rover.

She admitted that the launch re-ignited her interest in space. “I really love my job, but I wouldn’t completely rule out a career change — especially now that exploration has expanded into the commercial sector. I think the opportunities are only going to continue to grow from here.”

For Scott O’Neil, it was nice to see a return of the excitement that came from the early days of the space program during the 1960s. “On the West Coast, we had to get up at 3 a.m. to watch the countdown,” he recalled. Even then, you might watch as the count was held 45 minutes or more before the mission was ultimately aborted.

“It was amazing to see the Falcon launch go off in such a timely, relaxed fashion,” he said. “I say relaxed, but I’m sure that’s not the case! The truth is SpaceX seems to be doing so well that you almost forget how much risk is involved. It all appears very routine from here.”

O’Neil agreed about the anticipated advancements in technology that will be driven by this achievement. “Back in the 1960s, there was so much technological innovation — in a myriad of fields. We are going to see the same thing now.”

This injection of energy and enthusiasm isn’t just good for space, he said, it’s good for America.

“We don’t have a national focus right now. I hope that the synergy and inspiration coming out of this also gives us some unity as Americans. We need it.”

Pictured: Five-year-old Luca Martin, with his mother Julie, masters a simulated launch after tuning into the Space X launch and ISS dock. Courtesy photo

Story First Published: 2020-06-02