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  • Writer's pictureMackenzie White

Launching Forward: Black Lives Matter and Crew Dragon

Amid a global pandemic, extensive racial violence, and a historic presidential election, two NASA astronauts climbed into SpaceX’s commercial rocket on May 30, 2020. Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley were destined for the International Space Station, bringing supplies, science equipment, and a couple of stuffed animals from their kids. For the first time since the 2011 space shuttle mission, an American rocket launched from U.S. soil.

Experiencing a drastic departure from previous control centers littered with buttons and dials, Bob and Doug faced three sleek touch screens similar in aesthetic to large iPads – a design accounting for functionality and user experience. Compatible with their spacesuit gloves, these screens looked at home in the modern black and white interior of the capsule, clean lines and simple geometries defining the cabin. The physics of spaceflight hasn’t changed. But the style certainly has.

Bob and Doug inside Crew Dragon. Credit: NASA

While the futuristic, eye-catching features of the capsule are some of Dragon’s most unique contributions to rocket science, the spacecraft design's elegance extends beyond the visible exterior aesthetics into each element of Crew Dragon.

The spacecraft has two main parts: a pressurized capsule for human transport and a trunk for cargo and assisting the spacecraft during ascent. Secured around Crew Dragon's circumference are 16 Draco thrusters – rocket engines that control the orientation, orbital adjustments, and attitude throughout the mission. These Draco engines propel Crew Dragon to the Space Station once the capsule has reached space, combining stored liquid fuel and an oxidizer to spur spontaneous combustion. These engines are beneficial because they do not require ignition systems, allowing them to be reignited, repurposed, and reused.

With astronauts on board, the design's primary focus was to ensure the safe transport of human life. One of the biggest challenges in Dragon’s development was the creation of a habitable environment for the crew – a system labeled the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS).

Designed to work in concert with the spacesuits, spacecraft, and human life, the ECLSS needs to provide oxygen while removing the carbon dioxide and water vapor produced by people. Additionally, it must effectively control the cabin atmosphere pressure during flight and in the case of failures (i.e., a sealing leak). Dragon scientists and engineers aimed for the capsule to embody simplicity and fault tolerance, incorporating numerous backup systems wherever possible. An integrated group of diverse teams worked closely to ensure an efficient feedback loop between the system and component designs in creating the ECLSS system.

Dressed in the tuxedo of spacesuits, Bob and Doug each plugged into an “umbilical” line once inside Crew Dragon, connecting them to life support resources like air and electrical. A buddy breathe function allows any astronaut to receive gas from a neighboring seat in the case of a malfunctioning part. Design engineers triplicated most of the crew sensors in the ECLSS – a form of redundancy implemented to safeguard human life in the case of any faults.

A collection of eight SuperDraco engines surround the sidewalls of the white gumdrop-shaped capsule, created for the sole purpose of pushing the capsule away from Falcon 9 in the event of a failure. SuperDraco thrusters are essentially Draco thrusters with dramatic upgrades, as their name suggests. These engines produce over 100 times the smaller Draco engines' thrust, with the power to propel Dragon half a mile away from Falcon 9 in less than eight seconds. Though there certainly exists significant risk in flying aboard a novel capsule, the SpaceX and NASA design teams ensured Bob and Doug would pilot the safest crewed spacecraft to date.

While Crew Dragon launch day marked a new era for American spaceflight – a time that would traditionally serve as a cause for celebration of ingenuity and the future – living within this moment of hope and change was the persisting and devastating force of racism. The death of George Floyd occurring only days before launch, news correspondents struggled to simultaneously cover growing protests as lift-off time approached, some presenting a split-screen for live viewing as they both unfolded. Racial injustice continued to destroy life while Dragon stood to preserve it and propel it to new achievement.

Upon the completion of a successful launch, Poppy Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control, expressed the challenging emotions filling the day. “The launch today was a marvel of teamwork and a powerful demonstration of technical prowess,” she wrote. “But I find no joy in it with so many in pain from racial injustice and with the images of our cities in chaos.”

The shadow cast over this event was familiar to many. The morning of the Crew Dragon launch was painfully reminiscent of Apollo era celebration and mourning. Fifty-one years before the Crew Dragon launch, along the same spot of the Florida coast, 500 protesters stood outside the Kennedy Space Center entrance. They gathered to highlight the disparity between the new, glistening Saturn V rocket and the disgraceful treatment of Black Americans. While designed to show the strength and unity of the United States in the technological race to the Moon, the Apollo 11 mission formed a division between those who believed it could inspire a struggling America and those who saw it as a waste of resources in a country desperately needing societal reform.

Kennedy Space Center on July 15, 1969. Credit: Bettmann Archive

It is undeniably challenging to quantify the value of science, particularly when faced with pressing social justice issues. The United States failed then and again to do for its people what it has done for space exploration. The juxtaposition of where America has dramatically advanced since 1969 and where it has so profoundly failed was unavoidable as astronauts climbed into Crew Dragon: futuristic SpaceX spacesuits, a revolutionary capsule, and a moment of scientific achievement collided with events of police brutality, racism, and long-standing injustice. Human spaceflight may inspire, excite, and amaze, but it cannot erase Black Americans' suffering.

While a lot has changed in the science of space travel and life support, history has shown our success in science cannot be used as a ruler to measure and equate societal progress. A capsule so intricately designed to preserve life looked down from orbit on a country experiencing the unjust murdering Black Lives. In the face of this stark contrast, a shared goal existed between the flight of Crew Dragon and Black Lives Matter protests: to create a future better than the past. Space exploration is an opportunity for humanity to learn, improve, and evolve. Viewed from the window of Crew Dragon, the Earth is a singular unit, shared among every member of the human species.

View of Earth during Dragon's flight to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

The contrast between social and space science progress raises a fundamental question: How can and should humanity relate to our physical surroundings on Earth, the Moon, and beyond? Human action – good or bad – occurs in its respective cultural, scientific, and environmental contexts.

Following the scientific principle of learning from failure, America faces the task of exploring if scientific achievement can help bring together a nation rife with racism and denial and how it may use science as a tool for justice. Science does not progress in an intellectual vacuum; developmental direction, technological advances, and novel invention force interpretations far beyond science.

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