On the menu of this mission like no other: a woman in command of a SpaceX spacecraft, a doll in the effigy of a great genius and a reassuring understanding between Russia and the United States.
The works of the illustrious Albert Einstein have played a key role in our current understanding of the universe and the laws that govern it. But he never had the opportunity to visit space during his lifetime; he has just done so symbolically, nearly 70 years after his death.
This fun initiative was part of the Crew-5 program, a joint mission between NASA and SpaceX that took off yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center with four astronauts aboard. Its main objective was to transport four astronauts to the ISS to replace the Crew-4 mission, whose crew is due to return to Earth soon.
So it may have seemed like a routine expedition; but in fact this is far from the case. The Crew-5 mission stood out on several levels, starting with the presence of a doll with the image of Einstein that took place yesterday on a SpaceX launcher.
Legend has it that the physicist, raving about his work on what would become the legendary theory of relativity, had the “happiest thought of his life” when he imagined that a human free-falling in space would no longer feel his own weight.
This awareness was fundamental to the emergence of one of the most solid theories in academic history, general relativity. Even today, it is a pillar of modern science that no researcher has been able to waver – and not for lack of trying (see our article).
A fun homage to Einstein
For this genius born in 1874 and who died in 1955, it was just a thought experiment; unfortunately he died six years before Yuri Gagarin’s historic journey into orbit in 1961. Therefore, he never had the opportunity to physically experience this phenomenon he theorized; a missed opportunity that SpaceX wanted to correct with this effigy, used as a zero-G indicator.
The role of this indicator is to signal the transition to weightlessness; when they walk around the cabin, it means the vehicle is in free fall near Earth, or in orbit (very briefly, orbit is nothing more than a permanent free fall around a gravity well).
They can take many and varied forms. But SpaceX troops developed their own little tradition of using dolls. It’s a playful and completely functional approach, as these objects simply begin to float in the capsule during the transition. In the past, Dragon capsules already accommodated several and varied stuffed animals, such as Baby Yoda, a penguin, a turtle, a monkey or even an adorable dinosaur called Tremor.
A crew full of symbols
But the presence of this Einstein puppet, fun as it may be, was not the most important element of this mission. In fact, two of the crew members distinguished themselves by major debuts of significant scope.
It starts with the presence of Nicole Mann; this member of the Wailacki tribe became the first astronaut of Native American descent to reach orbit. A strong symbol, knowing that space exploration has long been reserved for Caucasian men. She also becomes the first woman to hold the position of mission commander aboard a SpaceX spacecraft.
The other notable passenger is Anna Kikina, a cosmonaut for the Russian space agency Roscosmos. She is the first Russian citizen to participate in a mission organized by SpaceX. A few months ago, her nationality probably wouldn’t have made anyone react. After all, Russia has one of the largest contingents of astronauts in the world. But this is anything but anecdotal in the current context, in the midst of the escalating Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Like their respective governments, NASA and Roscosmos have had a complicated relationship since the beginning of the crisis. Although cooperation continues within the framework of the ISS, the two agencies have distanced themselves; this progressive distancing has already had significant consequences for ambitious programs like ExoMars, much to the chagrin of the scientists involved (see our article).
Good news for space cooperation
Kikina’s presence is therefore an extremely encouraging sign; this shows that, despite their firm stances, the two agencies still continue to work together behind the scenes. Excellent news for the future of space exploration and for diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Also, the general mood of the crew seems particularly good. “I love my teammates,” she told American reporters when she arrived at the scene. ” I feel good, very comfortable. We will do our job in the best possible way: happy! “, he added with a big smile.
And since it is not customary, even the Russian space agency openly shows its goodwill. ” We continue what we started years ago in 1975 “, he explains. This is a reference to an in-orbit meeting between two American and Russian crews who worked together during a mission.
This episode is remembered as symbol of cooperation between the two nations after the Cold War who opposed them. It is therefore a well-founded allusion and particularly relevant today. Decidedly, Roscosmos is much less bellicose since the removal of its former president, the sulfurous Dmitry Rogozine (see our article). And that’s great news for everyone.
Let us hope, therefore, that this state of mind survives the new escalation that is announced after the “partial mobilization” campaign recently decided by Vladimir Putin; the political and diplomatic role of the aerospace industry has never been more important than it is today.