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Elon and Gwynne, the pair who made SpaceX
By Ivan Couronne
Washington (AFP) May 25, 2020

Milestones of US human spaceflights
Paris (AFP) May 25, 2020 - Here are key milestones in the history of crewed US spaceflights, which resume on May 27 with the first transport of US astronauts to the International Space Station for nine years.

- First American in space -

On April 12, 1961, the United States is upstaged by the Soviet Union, when Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space, completing a 108-minute orbit aboard Vostok 1.

Less than a month later, on May 5, American Alan Shepard carries out a 15-minute suborbital flight aboard Mercury, launched in 1958 by the newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 09:34 am local time using a Redstone rocket, his "Freedom-7" capsule reaches an altitude of 186 kilometres (115 miles) and travels less than 500 kilometres before landing in the Atlantic.

Weeks later US President John F. Kennedy launches the Apollo program, which foresees a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

On February 20, 1962, American John Glenn completes the first three orbits of the Earth, a voyage lasting just under five hours

- Man on the moon -

After six unmanned missions and four crewed outings to test equipment and manoeuvres, it is finally Apollo 11 that goes to the moon.

On July 21, 1969, at 0256 GMT, US astronauts Neil Armstrong, followed by crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin about 20 minutes later become the first men to set foot on the moon. A third astronaut, Michael Collins, remains in orbit.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," says Armstrong in immortal words watched on television by more than half a billion people around the world.

Six other Apollo missions follow, five of which successfully took 10 other men to the moon before the programme is ended in December 1972.

- Challenger and Columbia lost -

In 1972, President Richard Nixon decides to launch the US space shuttle programme, with the maiden voyage of the Columbia, the first reusable crewed spacecraft, taking place on April 12, 1981.

It is followed later by Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. In June 1983 Sally Ride becomes the first American woman to be sent into space, on Challenger.

During the 25th flight on January 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle explodes 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts, as television viewers around the world look on.

Flights resume in September 1988, with Discovery.

The American shuttles' missions become more important with the deployment in 1990 of the Hubble space telescope and the start of construction of the International Space Station (ISS), in 1998, at a cost of $100 billion, largely financed by the United States.

Shuttle launches become routine, until February 1, 2003, when Columbia disintegrates over Texas upon re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

- US crewed flights halted -

In 2004, President George W. Bush decides to end the shuttle programme in 2010, thus giving time to finish construction of the ISS. Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis are the last orbiters remaining in service.

The last flight takes place in late June 2011, after 30 years in service.

NASA has since depended entirely on Russia's Soyuz to take astronauts to space.

In February 2010, President Barack Obama scraps plans under the Constellation programme to return Americans to the moon.

He announces the goal of putting astronauts in orbit of Mars towards 2035 and developing commercial shuttles to transport American astronauts to the ISS.

His successor Donald Trump has ordered NASA to return to the moon by 2024 and to prepare missions to Mars.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. -- commonly known as SpaceX -- is slated to send two astronauts into space on Wednesday. Despite not yet being 20 years old, the company has already developed a creation myth: on September 28, 2008, its first rocket Falcon 1 launched for the fourth time.

"I messed up the first three launches, the first three launches failed. Fortunately the fourth launch -- that was the last money that we had -- the fourth launch worked, or that would have been it for SpaceX. But fate liked us that day," said Elon Musk, the company's founder and chief engineer, in 2017.

"We started with just a few people, who didn't really know how to make rockets. The reason I ended up being the chief engineer... was not because I wanted to, it's because I couldn't hire anyone. Nobody good would join," he added.

Born in South Africa, Musk immigrated to Canada at age 17, then to the US, where he amassed his fortune in Silicon Valley with the startup PayPal.

SpaceX's aim, when it was incorporated on March 14, 2002, was to make low-cost rockets to travel one day to Mars -- and beyond.

The 11th employee hired that year turned out to be someone good: Gwynne Shotwell, who was in charge of business development, soon established herself as Musk's right-hand woman.

In the space industry, the two are given the rock star privilege of only being referred to by their first names.

"Elon has the vision, but you need someone who can execute on the plan, and that's Gwynne," said Scott Hubbard, a professor at Stanford University and former director of NASA's Ames Research Center.

Hubbard met Musk in 2001, when the thirty-year-old entrepreneur was making his first forays into the space industry.

The 56-year-old Shotwell, who became SpaceX president and chief operating officer in 2008, is a self-described nerd. She graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in mechanical engineering and was elected in February to the National Academy of Engineering.

When Elon talks about colonizing Mars, it's Gwynne who makes commercial presentations and secures contracts.

"I have no creative bones in my body at all," Shotwell told a NASA historian in 2013. "I'm an analyst, but I love that."

- Reusable rockets -

The team started to gain credibility in 2006. SpaceX had only 80 employees (compared to 8,000 now) and had yet to achieve orbit. But NASA awarded them a contract to develop a vehicle to refuel the International Space Station (ISS). "The crowd went crazy," Shotwell recalled.

SpaceX succeeded in 2012: its Dragon capsule docked at the ISS, the first private company to do so. Then, in 2015, after multiple crashes and failures (spectacles often webcast live), SpaceX landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, the successor of Falcon 1, safely back on Earth.

The era of non-disposable rockets had begun.

"Falcon 9 is simpler and lower-cost," said Glenn Lightsey, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech.

The rockets were built completely under one roof, in Hawthorne in the Los Angeles area -- breaking with the long supply chain models of giants such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The SpaceX formula proved seductive to clients: in the past three years, the company has launched more rockets than Arianespace. In 2018, SpaceX launched more rockets than Russia. For an operator, launching a satellite on a Falcon 9 costs half as much as on an Ariane 5, according to Phil Smith, an analyst at Bryce Tech.

Having conquered the private launch market, SpaceX has claimed a bigger piece of the pie for public and military launches. Still funded by NASA, SpaceX is set this week to become the first private company to launch astronauts into space.

Despite a few years' delay, its Crew Dragon is ready before Boeing's Starliner. Musk also wants to build NASA's next moon lander.

Industry giants have criticized the company for "arrogance," but "the real reason was that it threatened their way of doing business and their livelihoods," Lori Garver, NASA's former deputy administrator, told AFP.

It's now Shotwell who lectures her competitors: "You have to learn those hard lessons," she said in a NASA briefing at the start of the month, recalling the multitude of problems that plagued SpaceX's start.

"I think sometimes the aerospace industry shied away from failure in the development phase."

Related Links
Rocket Science News at Space-Travel.Com

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First test of Virgin Orbit rocket fails to accomplish goal
Los Angeles (AFP) May 25, 2020
The first test launch of a rocket that is released from a jumbo jet at 35,000 feet and then propels itself into orbit to deploy a satellite failed on Monday, the Virgin Orbit company said. "The mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base," Virgin Orbit's Twitter account reported as the test was underway off the coast of California. The plane released the rocket cleanly, but the latter developed trouble of unknown origin after ignitin ... read more

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