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Astronaut: Musk's capsule a good addition to Soyuz (Q&A)

Space Shuttler and social-media star Chris Hadfield praises SpaceX's Dragon but says the NASA-Russia bond remains strong.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, all suited up. Mark Sowa

Elon Musk is an engineering and business genius along the lines of Howard Hughes, and he's accomplished things with SpaceX that rocket scientists have been trying to solve since the Mercury program in the early 1960s. But anyone who thinks Musk's new manned Dragon capsule, unveiled Thursday, means NASA can stop working with the Russians is way off base.

That's the opinion of Chris Hadfield, a two-time Space Shuttle astronaut who also flew fighters for NORAD, spent five months on the International Space Station, and caused a global sensation when he sang David Bowie's "Space Oddity" while looking out at Earth from the ISS.

There's no doubting that Hadfield is a big Musk fan. In an interview yesterday, he frequently touted the SpaceX (and Tesla) CEO's brilliance. But while he's impressed with SpaceX's 12-year history of multiple unmanned launches to the ISS, as well as with the design concept for its new manned Dragon capsule, he wants people to be clear that NASA's relationship with the Russians is strong, and will continue, regardless of what the Dragon brings to the table.

He also said he'd love to fly the new Dragon -- but he'd want to spend a lot of time under the hood to make sure it's safe first, just as he would with any vehicle.

Q: What's your take on the Dragon V2. How big a deal is this as a technology, and as a new spacecraft?
Hadfield: It's really impressive what Elon Musk and SpaceX have done. They've only been around a dozen years, and they've done what most countries have been unable to do: build a rocket that can take heavy payloads to Earth orbit, build a spaceship that can navigate and dock with the Space Station, and then undock, and return to Earth.

What we saw yesterday shows the vehicle's shape, which is really important. That constrains everything. It shows the possibility of seven people fitting inside. It shows the possibility of what an avionics display might look like. Of course, it's missing all the critical stuff: the lights, and all of the integration and complexity that goes into making that habitable and safe for crew. And there's all sorts of engineering questions that weren't addressed yesterday. But you have to start somewhere, and they have a really impressive track record over the last 10 or 12 years, and they've put together a really capable group of people.

NASA is obviously dependent in some ways on the Russians for Space Station missions. How would you characterize the relationship now between NASA and the Russians?
Hadfield: It's a very small subset of the relationship between the United States and Russia, and NASA's not dictating that relationship. What Russia has done in the Ukraine is being judged by all the countries around the world as unacceptable, untenable behavior. The real expression of NASA's relationship with Russia happened earlier this week when a NASA astronaut and an European Space Agency astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut all flew a spaceship together, after training together for years, to go join the combined effort that is the International Space Station.

The United States cannot fly to the Space Station without Russia, and Russia can't fly to the Space Station without the United States. It's a wonderful thing to have. If you look at the whole life of the Space Station, think of all the tumult, with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the devaluation of the Ruble in 1998, and other countries backing out of it, the Columbia accident, which would have left us completely helpless if we hadn't had the international commitment. It's easy to have a one-month attention span, but that's just not how you build spaceships, or how you explore the rest of the universe.

How does SpaceX change the dynamic of traveling to the Space Station, which has required the Russians' Soyuz?
Hadfield: It's always good to have options. If you only have one family car, and it breaks down, then you're in trouble. And people, of course, respond to competition. If you know you have a monopoly, then your attitudes and the way you behave will be different than if you're under some sort of competition. There's a lot of excitement about SpaceX. They're a brilliant group of people doing things very well. But they're also a major US government contractor. The vast majority of their funding comes from US government contracts, like Boeing, Lockheed, and any of the others. But they're doing a lot of independent development because they're headed by one person who, through his own brilliance, created significant wealth. That gives him a lot of latitude to pursue things many more traditional aerospace companies don't, or won't, or can't, because of shareholders. He's like a Howard Hughes, or Jack Northrop, one of those absolutely brilliant engineer-businessman combinations who has a vision and the work ethic to get stuff done. And he's done some incredible things in the dozen years that he's been working on this. They've already flown four Dragons to the Space Station, and that's really impressive.

That makes me optimistic about what they showed yesterday. They've come up with the hull design, and how to use thrusters to land, instead of a parachute and a redundant parachute. That's revolutionary. Everyone's been trying to do that for years, and no one's come up with it. It's also really heartening to have an indigenous, American vehicle that can go to the Space Station.

Did SpaceX work out that technology problem because Musk and his team are brilliant, or because the time was right, or because of the finances? Or is it all those things?
Hadfield: It's all of those things, but really it's an engineering problem. You have to solve the physics. You're going 5 miles a second, and you have to slow down from 5 miles a second, so what's the best way to slow down? We've tried all sorts of things. The Shuttle gently flew through the atmosphere. Capsules came in much more ruggedly. The Shuttle was the most capable flying machine ever built. It's a phenomenal thing. I flew it twice. Since the Mercury program, we've tried to solve that combined problem of getting there and then slowing down.

There's also the fact that until now, we haven't had miniaturized computers nearly capable of doing the flight control, to actively and efficiently use the fuel to do that delicate last stage, where you started to slow down, and then slow down all the way to land. Musk has also advanced the thrusting system over what's been done before. So maybe he's got over that engineering watershed, where it was just too hard with the technology we had when we last designed space capsules.

Ultimately, you just have to make it reliable enough not to kill the crew. I spent five months on the Space Station, and 50 percent of all the risk to my life was in the first nine minutes, because launch is risky. It's not like re-entry is the only risk we face.

It's way too early for them to be launching, but would you like to ride on the new Dragon?
Hadfield: I'm a test pilot. I've been a pilot since I was 14 years old. I like to fly everything. But before I fly anything I want to know what the current state of the design is. It's easy to say, sure, I'd like to fly it, but I'm not an idiot. Every single vehicle I've ever flown, even a Cessna 150, I really look into it. How are the systems maintained? Are there any cracks in the engine? I do a very thorough preflight. I was the pilot of the Soyuz, and I studied it for 10 years, full-time, and I dug into all the flight control design, and every system. I had to learn to speak Russian first. And then I simulated it for years before I finally launched in one. And so, of course, I'd love to fly a Dragon, but it's the integration of the test pilot crew with the engineers that design it that eventually makes a vehicle safe for flight. So if I had any chance at all of flying the Dragon V2, then I'd go down to SpaceX tomorrow and start working with the team, and use every bit of knowledge and experience that I have to make sure that they're not missing anything, and that it has the greatest chance of success.

Update (Sunday, 11:17 a.m. PT): The headline on this story has changed to better reflect Hadfield's comments.