Great news for space enthusiasts! SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is now officially the longest-lived American astronaut spacecraft ever built, surpassing an 84-day record set by the Apollo-era Skylab-4 mission that happened nearly 50 years ago.
Crew Dragon managed to beat the record quickly mainly because NASA decided to cannibalize its existing Saturn rocket and Apollo CSM spacecraft expertise, means of production, and budget to go full speed on the Space Shuttle program.
It had to be quickly and effectively reusable, so a wide range of compromises, design-by-committee mistakes, and budget shortfalls led to a Shuttle production that was insanely complex, unsafe, and only partially reusable. Additionally, the Shuttle was suboptimal for most tasks, and it cost more to launch than Saturn V.
It was a tedious task to refurbish and reuse the Space Shuttle. It often needed a nearly full disassembly and reassembly plus extensive reworks on most propulsion systems components.
The Shuttle never managed to get close to its limited but still ambitious potential, including maximum orbital longevity of just two or more weeks, partially due to some intense shortcomings and a catastrophic launch failure only five years after its debut.
Historic “joint” crew photo! Today #Crew1 broke the record for longest US space capsule mission ever,Skylab 4’s 84-day record in 1974. We were honored & thrilled to talk to #Skylab #astronaut Ed Gibson. Thanks @ASE_Astronauts! pic.twitter.com/JRaVmGJGlC
— NOGUCHI, Soichi 野口 聡－（のぐち そういち） (@Astro_Soichi) February 7, 2021
NASA went from Saturn I, Saturn V, and CSM – a combo that allowed for single-launch space stations, multi-month crewed spaceflights, and the entire Apollo program – to the Space Shuttle, which restricted the space agency’s ambitions back to low Earth orbit (LEO). In defense of the Shuttle, the space agency managed to join an international initiative to build the International Space Station (known as the ISS), a program the Shuttle managed to support with dozens of launches of crucial components, supplies, and crucial modules.
Had the agency continued the partnership with Skylab, a space station with a habitable area comparable to the 2021 ISS may have completed in a mere three launches, in contrast to the 30 launches required to build the ISS.
Today #Crew1 sets the record for longest US space capsule mission ever, beating Skylab 4’s 84-day record.
Today we celebrate…Resilience! pic.twitter.com/ixn6OWZM68
— Anthony Vareha (@Enterprise_Flt) February 7, 2021
Thankfully, SpaceX, with NASA funding, managed to return the space agency and the United States to its envelope-pushing legacy.
SpaceX’s third Crew Dragon launch has already surpassed the US record for manned spacecraft longevity on orbit and is ultimately aiming to double it before ending the mission.
The astronauts aboard the Crew-1 celebrated the milestone in orbit with Ed Gibson (virtually), one of the three astronauts that set Skylab-4’s former record 47 years earlier. Additionally, both Crew-1 and Skylab-4 launched nearly on the same day, coincidently, which means that February 8th marks the real 47th anniversary of the Skylab-4 mission’s reentry.
As the Crew-1 is the first spacecraft set to spend so much time in spaceflight, there is some uncertainty and no guarantee that the mission won’t be cut short, but the good news is that odds favor the agency.