How NASA's New Spaceships Stack Up | KUOW News and Information

How NASA's New Spaceships Stack Up

Sep 19, 2014
Originally published on September 19, 2014 7:24 pm

Earlier this week NASA announced that two private companies will build spaceships to take astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA hopes that both models will eventually be used by space tourists to get into orbit. Which got us wondering, which one would we rather fly in?

The first capsule is built by the sexy California start up Space-X. Known as "Dragon", it was unveiled by SpaceX founder Elon Musk earlier this summer at a promotional event that could have been for a new smart phone.

The second capsule goes by the more prosaic CST-100, and it's built by the Ford of space companies: Boeing. The CST-100 is based on the design for the Apollo command module that took astronauts to the moon.

But honestly, the spaceships look a lot alike.

"Both of them are offering sort of the same thing. It's a capsule, that can carry seven people, it's launched on a commercial rocket, it takes off from Florida, and it goes to the International Space Station," says Keith Cowing, who runs the blog NASAWatch.

Both are largely flown by computer. They have launch abort systems that can propel the capsule far from the rocket in an emergency. And initially, both will use parachutes to land (though the Dragon will eventually fire retrorockets to hover back to Earth's surface).

Former astronaut Clay Anderson has flown the space shuttle, and the Russian Soyuz. So I asked him how to choose spaceship: "It's when you get down to the quote unquote 'creature comforts', those are the things that will stand out to me," he says.

For example, music could help kill time on the waiting on the pad, he jokes.

More seriously, Anderson says the displays may be the biggest difference. The control panels on the old space shuttle were a nightmare to read. In the era of tablet computers, he wants spaceships to be more user-friendly.

"Touch screens, nice bright colors. Reds indicate emergencies, yellows indicate cautions, greens indicate A-OKs, that sort of thing," he says.

Boeing and SpaceX both have new displays standard on every model. But Keith Cowing says there is a difference in the way they look.

The Boeing one does harken back to Apollo," he says. "The SpaceX one, I've been in there, and it's got a sci-fi vibe to it."

SpaceX does look sleeker, and it'd be his first choice. But honestly? He'd fly in either one, if it meant going to space.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier this week NASA made a major announcement. It picked two private companies to build spaceships for taking astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA hopes that both models will eventually be used by space tourists to get into orbit, which got us wondering which one would we want to fly in? NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has advice on what to think about when choosing your next spaceship.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Capsule one is called Dragon. It's built by the sexy California start up SpaceX.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: It's all-around, I think, really a big leap forward in technology. It really takes things to the next level.

BRUMFIEL: That was SpaceX founder Elon Musk, unveiling the Dragon earlier this summer at a promotional event that could have been for a new smartphone. Then, there's capsule number two. Its name isn't quite as good. It's called the CST-100, and it's built by the Ford of space companies, Boeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOEING ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Boeing's been in this business - for 50 years we've been building spacecrafts. But I think we have really pulled together a world-class spacecraft that has benefitted from the ones that have come before it.

BRUMFIEL: Actually, the spaceships look a lot alike. They're both white. They're both shaped kind of like gumdrops. Keith Cowing runs the blog NASAWatch.

KEITH COWING: Well, both of them are offering sort of the same thing. It's a capsule that can carry seven people. It's launched on a commercial rocket. It takes off in Florida and it goes the International Space Station.

BRUMFIEL: They both have very little leg room. Initially, at least, both will use parachutes to land. And if those fail...

COWING: The inside of the spacecraft is designed to crumple - like a good car - it's designed to actually absorb the shock.

BRUMFIEL: So standard safety features. But if you think about it, cars have a lot of standard features - airbags, radios.

CLAY ANDERSON: If you look at a Cadillac or a Lexus or a Lamborghini, you know, all those basic functions are available on every vehicle.

BRUMFIEL: That's former astronaut Clay Anderson. He's flown the space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz. So we asked him how to choose a spaceship.

ANDERSON: It's when you get down to the quote, unquote, "creature comforts." Those are the things that will stand out to me.

BRUMFIEL: For example, there's a lot of waiting around before your spaceship actually launches.

ANDERSON: As you lie on your back on the launch pad, it'd be lovely to have, you know, some nice music.

(MUSIC)

BRUMFIEL: T-minus 10 minutes to liftoff. Seriously though, Anderson says there is something that would make a big difference. The control panels on the old space shuttle were a nightmare to read. In the era of tablet computers, he wants spaceships to be more user-friendly.

ANDERSON: Touch screens, nice bright colors, reds that indicate emergencies, yellows that indicate cautions, greens that indicate A-OKs, that sort of thing.

BRUMFIEL: Boeing and SpaceX both have new displays standard on every model. But Keith Cowing says there is a difference.

COWING: The Boeing one does harken back to Apollo. It does have a bit of that look. And I've actually been on Apollo capsules. The SpaceX one, I've been in there and it's got a sci-fi vibe to it.

BRUMFIEL: SpaceX is sleeker, and it'd be his first choice. But honestly, he'd fly in either one, if it meant he got to go to space. Jeff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.