Crew Dragon Demo 2: A Short Course in 21st Century Spaceflight

By Scott Spangler on June 1st, 2020
nasa d2 launch


As it did when Alan Shepard kicked off the US Space program with his suborbital flight in 1961, I eagerly anticipated watching the program’s most recent chapter, the resumption of flights launched from American soil. Watching the preparations for the Demo 2 departure of Crew Dragon on Wednesday and on Saturday was much more than I expected, a short course in 21st century spaceflight.

Used to the military-toned phraseology employed during all of the NASA launches I’ve watched since Shepard went flying in 1961, it was clear this was a commercial operation because everyone on the NASA TV Launch America referred to everyone involved by their first names. Watching the launch on Saturday with my sister and brother-in-law, we considered (briefly) starting a drinking game where we had to take a sip every time someone said “Bob and Doug,” referring to the Crew Dragon crew of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Thankfully we didn’t. If we had, the four of us would have been sleeping it off under the TV long before Bob and Doug closed their helmet visors and armed the launch escape system so they could start filling the Falcon 9 with densified LOX and RP1.

nasa crew


Like the NASA flights that preceded it, acronyms and multi-letter abbreviations liberally seasoned the comments and conversations of launch communications. What I did not expect, based on this past experience, is that the Launch America crew would translate and explain—in English—what they were talking about, hence the much appreciated short course in 21st century space flight.

Chances are you were, like me, one of the more than 10 million online viewers, so I won’t bore you with a geek-worthy catalog of new learning. But as a sample, the super turbo pumps feed the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin engines a mixture of densified liquid oxygen, which is colder than traditional LOX to provide more oxidizer in the same volume, and Rocket Propellant 1, which is a rocket-grade kerosene. To “complete the fire triangle,” the Falcon 9 adds TEA-TEB—a mixture of triethylaluminum and triethylborarne—a pyrophoritic compound that spontaneously combusts when exposed to oxygen (gaseous or liquid or densified liquid).

nasa crew open


What they did not explain is why the crew kept their helmet visors open until arming the launch escape system. I remember from spaceflights previous when the crew had to prebreathe oxygen to purge their system of nitrogen before launch, to prevent any chance of bubbles of that gas in their bloodstreams should the spacecraft lose pressurization on its way to orbit. (Anyone have any ideas?) The boldly numbered members of the ground crew, on the other hand, seem an efficiently brilliant way to assigning and keeping track of their essential duties, responsibilities, and contribution to the flight.

If Launch America discussed the roots of the whimsical equipment names, I missed it, so I had to do some post flight research. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk is a science fiction fan (like that was a surprise), so he named his reusable rocket after Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon. Elon explained the capsule’s moniker in a Twitter response to a question about its name. The reusable capsule “was originally called Puff the Magic Dragon, as people said I was high if I thought it would work, so I named it after their insult.”

nasa merlin


Expecting the Falcon’s Merlin engines to be named after King Arthur’s wizard, I discovered it was named after the bird, as were SpaceX’s other engines, Kestrel and Raptor. The drone ships that are the landing pads for the Falcon’s first stage were a bit more esoteric. Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read the Instructions are the sentient space ships in Ian M. Banks’s science fiction novel, The Player of the Games.

Taking notes during this enthralling short course was beyond difficult because I could not avert my eyes from the stunning HD video from almost every conceivable angle. Given technology today, I should not have been surprised, but my visual memory was stuck in the shuttle era. But some commercial aspects remain unchanged. On Saturday we turned into the Discovery Channel, and we greatly enjoyed the program that recounted the history of SpaceX and all of its successes and failures. But when the announcer announced the celebrities, including Katy Perry, who would be part of the launch coverage, we switched back to NASA TV and Launch America.

wiki land


On Launch America the countdown conversation held us rapt, until one of the astronauts uttered a trite cliché, “Let’s light this candle.” Really? The Mylar Puff the Magic Dragon that floated up beside of the seats, described as the zero-g indicator, helped make up for the cliché, and trying to keep up with the speed and altitude readouts, in meters per second and kilometers, quickly buried the B-movie quote in 21st century appreciation and amazement. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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3 Responses to “Crew Dragon Demo 2: A Short Course in 21st Century Spaceflight”

  1. Dave Byers Says:


    Enjoyed the post. FYI, I believe the “trite cliche” was really paying homage to Alan Sheppard’s epic first flight on Freedom 7. It came from a conversation after hours of delays when he said “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”. The movie “The Right Stuff” dialogue shortened to him saying just “Let’s light this candle”.


  2. William Pinney Says:

    I guess the thing that I like most about SpaceX is that they “hunger” for space the way America did in the 60’s and 70’s. Their drive, enthusiasm, and energy is just awesome. Roger on the close-out room activities, with the numbered technicians. Being a “child” of Apollo, I do miss seeing the techs with their cool embroidered overalls–McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, North American Aviation; all the great names. And I wish the great Gunter Wendt could still be there!

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