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Dragon after splashdown
Could the Dragon, pictured above shortly after splashdown on Thursday, be to 21st century space exploration what the caravel was to 16th century maritime exploration? (credit: SpaceX)

Sailing in the wake of history

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“You’ve got to haul the sheet in as we ride on the wind that our Forefathers harnessed before us”
– “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, Jimmy Buffet

Placing contemporary events in meaningful historic context is often tricky business, and always comes with a risk of overemphasizing the importance of the here and now. Occasionally, however, events transpire that hold the potential of overtaking history, and this may be the case with the SpaceX Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) 2/3 flight. There were so many significant elements to the mission—a successful third launch of the Falcon 9, the first fully functional Dragon spacecraft in orbit, and of course the berthing with ISS itself, as well as a second successful return—that it will take some time to register the full implications. Occurring as it did against the backdrop of the final phases of our long good-bye to the Space Shuttle program and the recent transfer of Discovery and Enterprise to their respective museums, it is tempting to view the SpaceX accomplishment in that light. If for some, the flight of a small, uncrewed space capsule still seems a step backwards in time—and presumably in progress—compared to that of Atlantis, the previous American spacecraft to visit the orbiting outpost, it might be worth gazing quite a bit further back in time to consider the event from an altogether different perspective.

The tiny Caravels had an effect wildly out of proportion to their size. In this regard, they perhaps share a great deal in common with the small, scorched Dragon spacecraft bobbing placidly in the Pacific Ocean.

Our understanding of the past is constantly evolving, as both new facts and new interpretations of older understandings come to light. One piece of recently re-examined history suggests that the first recorded European landfall on the coast of what is now the United States occurred somewhat further south than St. Augustine, Florida, as originally thought. It appears that Juan Ponce De Leon most likely waded ashore on May 2, 1513, less than 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of the Apollo launch pad from which mankind first left Earth for its initial foray to another world. One hopes that it will remain the judgment of history that two of the more significant events in the human experience of discovery are co-located in space, separated only in time.

Ponce De Leon’s eight-month voyage along the peninsula that he would give the name “La Florida” departed not from Spain, but instead from the recently settled island of Puerto Rico, and was made possible by a type of ship that was flexible and economical enough to be dispatched from a base that was itself only a foothold in a new and uncharted realm. Of the three ships comprising Leon’s small fleet, one was little more than a tender. The other two, however, though also small by the standards of the age of sail, were working examples of one of the most effective instruments of discovery in all of human history, the Portuguese Caravel. Uniquely suited for the difficult and often conflicting demands of exploration by sea, the Caravel was more than a ship. It was a well-crafted vessel carefully designed to be an instrument of knowledge acquisition and a tool of affordable discovery in an era when far larger sailing ships, in use as both instruments of war and royal vanity, recorded their greatest impact in bankrupting treasuries.

The tiny Caravels, which first began sailing from Portugal and then Spain out into the vast unknown, had an effect wildly out of proportion to their size. In this regard, they perhaps share a great deal in common with the small, scorched Dragon spacecraft bobbing placidly in the Pacific Ocean at the end of a historic nine-day journey on the last day of May, 2012. In it, we may see a reflection of a similar potential to alter our understanding, and even more importantly, the physical boundaries of human civilization, the original limits of which were first fully revealed in the age of sail.

Though its specific origins, and even the etymology, of the word ”caravel” are lost to time and the subject of debate by sources eager to claim it as their own, this class of vessel came into full usage in the early 1400s under the third in line to the throne of Portugal, known to history as Henry the Navigator. A lifelong recluse who generally shunned court life and rarely traveled, who maintained a vow of celibacy and never married, there would seem to be few personal comparisons to be drawn with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but there is an undeniable similarity in both the lifelong goals they undertook, and the way in which they sought to achieve those goals with vessels specifically designed as instruments of exploration.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon were, in fact, designed as instruments of exploration intended to allow SpaceX to learn, in pursuit of its own goals, how to explore affordably.

For Henry, the goal was clearly defined even if the motivations remain clouded: the charting of a sea route to India, China, and the elusive Spice Islands in order to effectively bypass Arab control of traditional overland trade routes. If successful, the result would be unimaginable wealth for the small country at the southern outpost of Europe. The principal asset he lacked was not wealth but the knowledge, techniques, and, most importantly, a ship capable of exploration beyond the limits of the known world. In systematically putting together a plan to develop all three, Henry recorded one of the most significant achievements in the annals of exploration, and one from which the United States could still draw useful insights.

We do not even know for certain if the very first ships Henry dispatched south were in fact Caravels. There is some reason to believe that the design emerged only after the first expeditions returned empty-handed, captain and crews terrified by the sea conditions along Africa’s Sahara coast and Cape Bojador, a near mythical barrier which repulsed the first 12 expeditions Henry dispatched. Whether designed, evolved, or adapted, what ultimately resulted was a ship uniquely suited to the challenge of far flung exploration. Equipped with triangular lateen sails almost certainly borrowed from Arab dhows, the ship had the ability to sail into the wind and thereby cover great distances of open ocean at sustained speed. At the same time, it was small enough and of sufficiently shallow draft to safely explore alien shores with unknown hazards, coral reefs, and rocky bottoms that could rip a ship’s hull and consign sailors to death on a foreign and hostile shore. It could also push up coastal rivers, scout shallow or constrained harbors that a larger ship dared not enter without a chart, and, when the need arose, could be careened on a remote beach for repair by a small but experienced crew that knew its vessel well.

Of the three ships in which Columbus first sailed, two were Caravels, and it was in one, the Nina, that Columbus returned after his larger flagship, the Santa Maria, met its fate on a tropical reef. Even the Santa Maria’s presence on the trip was itself a matter of incident when the intended third ship, also a caravel, did not arrive in time for departure and Columbus purchased the only other ship immediately available. The Nina would sail under Columbus two more times, and in his diaries the often acerbic Genoan regarded the ship with unbridled affection. Far to the north, another Italian, Giovanni Caboto, Anglicized as John Cabot and sailing under the English banner, staked that nation’s original claim to North America in 1497 from the deck of his own Caravel, the 78-foot Matthew. Time and again, similar vessels were employed over the coming century to chart the coastlines, harbors, reefs, and islands of North and South America, the Caribbean, and the island chains of the vast Pacific Ocean, as well as the trade routes along the African and Indian coasts upon which Portugal built its empire. In time, the Caravels gave way to larger and more capable ships that encircled the globe in a network of wind-borne commerce that fully ended less than a century ago. Far from a matter of ancient history, more than a few who made their living on the open ocean under the billowing of canvas lived to see mankind leave the home world to sail in the new ocean of space, and even today, a few still do, which brings us once more to the stubby spacecraft and slender white rocket which blasted off from Cape Canaveral on May 22.

Shortly after the liftoff, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden conducted a brief pre-dawn press conference in front of the iconic countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center. There, he both congratulated SpaceX for the successful launch and went on to repeat the well-established mantra that commercial resupply would conserve resources and allow NASA to “focus on what we do best, exploring even deeper into our solar system.” The message was reinforced shortly afterwards in the post-launch press conference when NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier repeated the same sentiment. Even Elon Musk, keenly aware that it is never polite to upstage your host or publically embarrass your business partner, was uncharacteristically guarded when asked a question regarding SpaceX’s long term plans for exploration.

The evolution of a progressively more capable and more affordable launch system, in concert with a similarly evolving space operations capability, opens the possibility of not merely making new journeys possible, but learning how to conduct them better and faster, and at lower cost.

A partial answer to that question could be found in the very spacecraft that was at that point already completing its first orbit. SpaceX has made no secret of the fact that the Dragon spacecraft, and the Falcon 9 rocket which launched it, were conceived from the outset to be more than a winning entrant for COTS/CRS and a precursor to the commercial crew contest still underway. They were, in fact, designed as instruments of exploration intended to allow SpaceX to learn, in pursuit of its own goals, how to explore affordably. The COTS 2/3 flight and the soon-to-begin CRS missions are vital components in an approach that will allow the company to steadily build the experience, technology, and hardware to reach Mars. Assuming the company wins NASA’s commercial crew competition, which suddenly seems highly likely, that experience will be leveraged further to include human spaceflight. The current Falcon/Dragon is clearly a pathfinder system, but one which can be readily adapted and upgraded to perform almost all the tasks required to chart this new course. In this regard, it can be viewed in much the same light as the precursor vessels of an earlier age, with similarly sweeping implications for the future, and it begs the question of when, or even if, the official American space program is going to literally put the “flexible” into the flexible path, and embrace an emerging reality.

Designed to be operated both autonomously and by crew, the Dragon alone among the four funded commercial crew competitors is equipped with solar panels and is capable of conducting extended operations in space, which is the premise behind its ISS-independent DragonLab configuration, scheduled for a first launch in 2014. In addition to its commercial objectives, the DragonLab is also a test platform that will allow SpaceX to test the ability to conduct space operations over a timeframe similar to that required to reach the company’s overriding destination, Mars. Although the basic Dragon design in crew configuration clearly lacks vital amenities to comfortably endure missions of durations sufficient to reach the Red Planet, such as expanded living, working, and sanitation space, not to mention an airlock, it is hardly alone in this regard. The only modestly larger, and outrageously more expensive, Orion capsule is equally challenged, a fact that NASA and Lockheed Martin tend to gloss over in public presentations of the multibillion-dollar spacecraft. This is a shortcoming readily remedied in a variety of ways, however, either through SpaceX’s recently renewed relationship with Bigelow Aerospace, or a readily adapted multi-purpose logistics module of the type NASA is attempting to induce the European Space Agency to build in order to solve the same problem for Orion. For that matter, even Lockheed Martin has offered a solution in the form of its “kissing Orions” proposal for an asteroid rendezvous mission. Presumably two Dragon capsules could kiss just as readily, assuming they don’t actually breathe fire in the process.

Furthermore, although for the time being the Dragon capsules will continue to return to Earth, or rather to sea, via parachute landing, SpaceX is also rather forthright concerning the company’s intention to use future CRS missions to progressively develop precision guidance techniques in pursuit of propulsive landing on solid ground. Given the outstanding performance credentials burnished on this initial flight, as well as a remarkably precise landing on its first flight, there should be little doubt that the technique is within reach. It is also a skill SpaceX is actively pursuing from the other end of the launch vehicle as well. SpaceX’s Grasshopper reusable launch vehicle test project is a key part of the more challenging effort to develop first stage reusability for the Falcon 9. The net result, if successful, will be the ability to safely land future Dragon capsules on both the Moon and Mars, as well as other planetary bodies within the solar system.

The only missing elements to establishing a basic exploration regime for our immediate neighborhood are an ascent vehicle and a sufficiently powerful yet affordable launch vehicle. This latter is already well underway in the form of the Falcon Heavy, which recently received a major endorsement in the form of its first commercial launch order from Intelsat. Although somewhat obscured in the press surrounding the COTS 2/3 launch, SpaceX is currently expanding its Cape Canaveral processing building to accommodate the significantly longer Falcon 9 V1.1, which is scheduled to replace the basic Falcon 9 for all applications beginning next year on flight 6 (this latest launch was flight 3), and to serve as the core booster for the Falcon Heavy.

Now for a moment, it is again sometime in the early 1400s, and we stand on our own rocky coastline looking across an opening expanse, considering with a sense of wonder what may be revealed by our own tiny ships, soon to head out into an unknown vast, strange, and brimming with potential.

Achieving a successful introduction of the Falcon Heavy begins with the first flight of the V 1.1, which includes a significantly stretched booster as well as nine new Merlin 1D engines arranged in an octagonal pattern around one central engine. The changes not only produce a more powerful expendable core booster, but allow for an evolution towards a re-usable first stage where lift performance is traded for lower staging velocity and flyback capability. Although NASA appears to have completely abandoned launch vehicle reusability as a serious policy goal, it would be difficult to overstate its importance to the long-term future of human spaceflight. Elon Musk and SpaceX clearly understand this, and if changes to the Falcon system lead to an cost reduction from reuse, it will be the modern equivalent of learning to sail into wind.

The evolution of a progressively more capable and more affordable launch system, in concert with a similarly evolving space operations capability, opens the possibility of not merely making new journeys possible, but learning how to conduct them better and faster, and at lower cost. This too, we have seen before. Beyond the discovery and charting of new lands by early explorers in their Caravels was the equally important achievement of mapping prevailing ocean currents and reliably blowing trade winds, which made it possible to eliminate the haphazard and often deadly navigational mistakes that marked early journeys. In fact, it was Ponce De Leon, turning south after his Florida landfall, who first encountered the presence of the powerful Gulf Stream flowing north between the Florida mainland and the islands of the Bahamas. That discovery would radically alter the route taken by ships returning to Europe from the New World. Soon thereafter, the ships themselves were optimized to take advantage of the knowledge gained, and with a great expanse of sails spread before the trades, mankind began to accurately span the globe on a regular and predictable basis.

As of 1969, the United States successfully demonstrated the capability of landing its astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely home, but as we soon learned, that skill alone was not sufficient to allow for a program of affordable and sustained exploration. It appears that many are still ignoring this lesson, although clearly not SpaceX or the NASA officials administering the COTS/CRS and Commercial Crew programs. What remains to be developed are a host of skills for a new age that includes not only the paramount issue of launch vehicle reusability but also a laundry list of other techniques, such as long-term cryogenic propellant storage and transfer, in situ resource development, rotating structures for artificial gravity, and effective aerobraking techniques for efficient return with reduced fuel budgets. These and other skills are just as vital to increasing the safety, efficiency, and, most importantly, the affordability of space exploration today as a knowledge of ocean currents, the location of undersea reefs, and the utility of citrus in fighting scurvy were to our forebears.

None of this, it must be pointed out, requires a massive 130-ton fully-expendable launch vehicle, the very expense of which precludes using it to gain the actual knowledge needed to effectively chart the course for a new era. Although there can be little doubt that a full-fledged expansion into space will ultimately require significantly larger launch vehicles than even the Falcon Heavy, it is also equally clear that if the vehicle is not economically sustainable, the effort will be futile. The principal difference wrought by SpaceX and NASA’s COTS program is that we now have both an existence proof for an alternative to the traditional development model, as well as a fully-capable flight system that can and should be put to work now to do the hard work in supporting a long-term program of exploration, in addition to meeting the logistical needs of the ISS.

The Caravels left in their wake a legacy that still shapes the world we live in today. Economics in the age of exploration was concerned with the expense of building and outfitting ships, and the staffing of crew large enough to sail the vessels yet small enough to not exhaust supplies before landfall. In the end it was a matter of available resources, and though the specifics have changed, the challenge is still the same. The success of Falcon 9 and Dragon is going to raise some very interesting questions regarding NASA’s long-term plans and spark a debate that will rise to even higher levels with a successful introduction of the Falcon Heavy. That debate can wait, however, at least for a little while, as we revel in the magnitude of what SpaceX has accomplished with the invaluable partnership offered by NASA’s COTS program.

For those who watched the Shuttle’s retirement with a sense of resignation of being consigned to a future somehow less than it once seemed, the page has already turned. And for others who see the matter from a different perspective, having grown weary and frustrated in four decades of orbiting the Earth since Apollo 17, the ruddy orange glow which illuminated the Florida sky early on the morning of May 22 signaled the dawn of an era long overdue. In completing the extremely complex and challenging COTS 2/3 mission in the manner it did, SpaceX has won a major victory for everyone committed to sustainable spaceflight. Even though reality tells us that every mission cannot be this good, that the future will have its share of dark days, it is equally clear that a better future is ours, or anyone’s for the taking. Now for a moment, it is again sometime in the early 1400s, and we stand on our own rocky coastline looking across an opening expanse, considering with a sense of wonder what may be revealed by our own tiny ships, soon to head out into an unknown vast, strange, and brimming with potential.