The 2 astronauts flying SpaceX's new Crew Dragon spaceship explain what it's like to operate it, Business Insider - Business Insider Singapore


Nearly a decade ago, the space shuttle Atlantis landed in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the last time. Not a single American rocket-and-spaceship system has launched into space since.

That all changes on Wednesday at 4:33 p.m., when SpaceX plans to initiate its Demo-2 mission, launching NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into space for a 110-day journey on the Crew Dragon spaceship.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, described it as “a new era in human spaceflight.” And with a new technological era comes new tools: Here’s what Behnken and Hurley say it’s like to operate SpaceX’s 21st-century spacecraft.

‘This is certainly different’

Unlike traditional space shuttles, the Crew Dragon’s control panel is touchscreen-only.

“It’s probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I’m lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” Behnken said during a media call in May.

But the opportunity came with some challenges, and was the result of a long process of engineering experiments and tinkering.

“I think it was probably on the order of at least five or six years ago when we went out to SpaceX and evaluated a bunch of different control mechanisms for the vehicle,” Hurley said on the call. “Ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface.”
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley practiced a full simulation of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, in SpaceX’s flight simulator, on March 19, 2020.SpaceX

That decision took some getting used to for the pilots, both of whom typically operate analog control panels.

“Growing up as a pilot, my whole career having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different,” Hurley said.

“For those of us who’ve been living with switches from the 60s for all these years, a modern interface is something that’s pretty exciting,” Behnken added.

“It’s the way of the future with vehicles,” Hurley agreed.

The docking sequence could be done manually, even though the Crew Dragon ship is fully automated

Beyond the touchscreen interface, the ship will be fully automated. But “the Dragon spacecraft does have a lot of capabilities for us to intervene manually,” Behnken said.

And because the flight will involve a docking sequence, the pilots will manually control the spacecraft for part of the mission.

“[We will] potentially finish off a docking sequence or approaching docking sequence that we couldn’t do from an automated perspective,” Hurley said on the media call.

With the touchscreen controls, it took “a little more time to get used to that way of flying a vehicle, certainly, but it wasn’t anything that became completely objectionable or was extremely difficult to do,” Hurley said.

“The touchscreen is going to provide us that capability just fine,” Hurley added. “And we’ll test it again on orbit for real.”