How can one float aboard a SpaceX spacecraft: Climb aboard, strap yourself in, close the hatch and fly to space. The takes care of everything, so relax and enjoy the ride unless, of course, something goes wrong and in space something can always go wrong.
So here is how you prepare for that possibility: Spend months of 60 hour weeks in classrooms and simulators; master hundreds of pages of technical specs and procedures; learn the workings of dozens of systems and subsystems aboard the spacecraft; train for emergencies ranging from communication blackouts to navigation failures to on-board fires; and, not for nothing, spend a little time in a centrifuge and an altitude chamber, practicing for the g-forces you're going to have to endure and the
There's north of 60 procedures that range from civilian contingency to emergency, says Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift 4 Payments, an online payment service, who is conducting Inspiration 4 mission in September and spending three days in orbit with three normal civilian astronauts. 'In a multi-day mission there is a lot of time for a lot of things to go wrong.
Practicing for those eventualities aboard require a whole new kind of training, because by any measure the new ship is not your daddy's spacecraft. The ancient Apollo, Mercury, Gemini and Mercury capsules were designed with an airplane cockpit in mind. Their sheet-metal gauge panels were decorated with hundreds of switches, dials, lights and analog gauges. Their simple onboard computers were controlled by a mechanical keyboard. The commander flew these ships the same way you'd fly a plane — with a control stick determining velocity, attitude, altitude and direction.
The designers of Google replaced all of that, simply replacing everything — including control stick — with three large touch screens facing four side-by-side seats. Each screen is capable of calling up as many as 10 sets of displays, allowing the crew to focus on a particular set of systems — guidance, environmental, electrical and more.
'You have an individual system page on the screen and then you can drill down to overall pages as well, says Doug Hurley, commander of the first spaceX mission from NASA, launched in May 2020. 'There's a total of 25 to 30 individual pages, and SpaceX could have added some more since my flight. With any aircraft or spacecraft, always iterate because it makes sense and it's easy and will help the crew.
Ideally, the spacecraft helps the astronauts so much that they have virtually nothing to do, with the ship operating entirely autonomously. 'And if the automation does not take care of a problem, then the ground is your next layer of defense, says Hurley, refering SpaceX ground controllers who can problem-solve and issue commands to the spacecraft from comfort of mission control. Only if the fails to take over itself and the ground staffers can't solve the problem would the astronauts take over.
That's the case when it comes to the most critical aspect of flying spacecraft: commanding it. The features include a full-time Autopilot program, with no astronaut intervention. On Hurley's flight, he had control in the final stages of the spacecraft's approach to the International Space Station, steering the ship in all axes, flying above, below and to the left and right of the station. The purpose of that exercise was to prove that manual systems worked.
Hurley says 'In space you have to trust and verify'. However, there is no intent to do any more manual flying unless there's a need for it from a system failure sort of scenario.
Those failures do occur, and learning to fly by hand can take some doing. Stripping the control stick and replacing it with buttons on a touch screen may make for a more elegant spacecraft, but it also eliminates the most important physical connection a pilot has to their vehicle. Pilots using a stick never have to look at it because they operate with tactile response, but that's impossible with a touch screen that provides nothing by way of tactile response. 'When you're taking off soft keys on a touch screen it's a totally different feel, and a lot of muscle memory is lost, says Isaacman, who is a licensed jet pilot and knows a thing or two about stick-and-rudder skills. There is that delay when you look at the screen and execute a command before it's input, versus something instantaneous when you move the stick.
Then there are the kinds of emergency not only that require on-site human intervention, but also require it to be executed immediately — and perfectly. Fires can and do exist aboard spacecraft; crew members on Mir space station battle a blaze in 1997 when a fuel canister ignited. The biggest risk onboard is a fire caused by a battery overheating, and there are a lot of batteries aboard the ship — not only the spacecraft's own, but those that power the tablets, cameras and smartphones the crew members will carry.
There is also the risk of a spacecraft depressurization, requiring the crew to look at the breach, try to seal it and scramble into their suits at the same time. A launch emergency can happen too if, say, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that is carrying the ship to space fails to separate from the and the commander has to manually execute the separation maneuver. The guidance system is also subject to failure, potentially causing the ship's solar panels to slip out of alignment with the sun and requiring human intervention to set things right.
Finally, there are the greater risks raised by the simple number of days the Inspiration 4 crew will spend orbiting. Crews headed to the space station fly with the crew directly at those manned and are usually on board within a day or so of launching. The Inspiration 4 Crew will be in orbit for three days, flying independently, with the security the new giant station provides — the longest U.S. space a U.S. crew has been caind in a vehicle other than the station since the last shuttle stood down in 2011. Every day on their own is another day during which something can go wrong.
Ideally, nothing goes wrong on any given mission — and SpaceX has flown three crewed flights so far. The ideal has been the real. But if space is a dangerous place to go, always and always will be. It's for the designers to remove the risk — and even work — from the equation. I don't know there's a single human spaceflight mission that had no anomaly, says Isaacman. 'People tell us that we are making good progress. I think we arrived at the point where we're definitely ready and this is going to be a well-executed mission.