September 20, 2020

Astronauts have a surprise name for their Crew Dragon spacecraft


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The Crew Dragon spacecraft sits atop a Falcon 9 rocket on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: SpaceX

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken plan to reveal a name for their Crew Dragon spaceship on the day they launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, reclaiming a tradition that dates back to the dawn of the Space Age.

Hurley and Behnken are preparing for launch on a test flight to restore orbital human spaceflight capability to the United States.

The crew members have not disclosed the name for their spacecraft yet. The astronauts said Friday they will announce it on launch day.

“We have to save some suspense for the mission itself,” Behnken said during the crew’s final pre-launch press conference. “But we do have a name, and we will break it out appropriately. We’ve got something for you to look forward to on launch day.”

Hurley and Behnken are gearing up to launch on the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s first mission with astronauts. Liftoff is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. EDT (2033 GMT) Wednesday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, weather permitting.

The tradition of having NASA astronauts name their spaceships dates back to the Mercury program.

The original Mercury astronauts named their capsules before they flew into space. Alan Shepard, the first American in space in May 1961, named his spacecraft Freedom 7, and John Glenn christened his capsule Friendship 7 before he came the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962.

Astronaut Gus Grissom named his Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7, recognizing the craft’s bell shape. The Liberty Bell 7 capsule sunk in the Atlantic Ocean after splashdown on Grissom’s suborbital flight in July 1961, leading Grissom to name the Gemini spacecraft on his next mission Molly Brown, a lighthearted reference to the Broadway musical¬†The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The play, and a related 1964 film, tell a fictionalized story of the life of Margaret Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

NASA managers did not permit astronauts to name their spacecraft for the rest of the Gemini program, but crews picked up the practice again during the Apollo moon missions. The moon landing flights included two spacecraft — an Apollo command module and a lunar lander — and mission control needed radio call signs for each vehicle.

The Apollo 9 crew, which tested the lunar module in Earth orbit, named their command module Gumdrop, and the lunar module Spider. Apollo 10 flew with the command module Charlie Brown, and the lunar module Snoopy.

Most famously, astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission named their spacecraft Columbia and Eagle.

NASA named the space shuttle orbiters after important ships of exploration and scientific discovery, and astronauts used those names as call signs during shuttle flights.

Dragon spacecraft commander Doug Hurley and joint operations commander Bob Behnken pose at launch pad 39A Saturday during a dress rehearsal for their launch scheduled May 27. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

With the resumption of crewed missions into orbit from U.S. soil for the first time since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA astronauts are again picking names for their spacecraft. SpaceX and Boeing won NASA contracts in 2014 to develop the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and SpaceX’s commercial spaceship is ready to fly crews first.

NASA astronaut Suni Williams in December named one of Boeing’s reusable Starliner spacecraft Calypso after it landed following an unpiloted test flight. At the time, Williams was assigned to command the same capsule on its next mission to the International Space Station.

But Boeing has shuffled its spacecraft assignments after announcing plans to fly a second unpiloted Starliner demonstration mission. The first test flight in December suffered from several problems, including an error in its mission elapsed timer that prevented the capsule from docking with the space station.

Boeing’s other reusable Starliner crew module was originally assigned to the company’s first crewed test flight, but now it will launch this fall on the redo of the automated demonstration mission, according to a Boeing spokesperson. The Calypso spacecraft, which flew in December, is being refurbished for another mission, potentially the first Boeing flight with astronauts.

SpaceX’s new-generation capsules are also designed to be reusable. The Dragon 2 ships now being built by SpaceX come in a human-rated variant, called the Crew Dragon, and a cargo-carrying configuration for logistics flights to the space station.

So far, NASA has approved plans to reuse the Dragon 2 vehicles for cargo missions. SpaceX says the Dragon 2 capsules can fly to the space station and back up to five times, and the company hopes to eventually reuse the spaceships for crewed missions.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule lands under parachutes on land, while the Dragon splashes down at sea. Engineers say the exposure of sensitive spacecraft components to salt water makes reuse more challenging.

Hurley, the spacecraft commander on the Crew Dragon test flight, said astronauts training for the first few commercial missions “all think it’s great idea” to assign names to their spacecraft.

“We feel honored to continue this tradition,” Hurley said Friday.

Russian cosmonauts have also used call signs on space missions, but Russian spacecraft commanders often use the same name on each of their flights. For example, Gennady Padalka, who has spent more time in space than anyone in history, used the call sign Altair on each of his five Soyuz missions.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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