On May 29th, 2014 Elon Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX called the attention of the spaceflight community to the stage where he was to unveil the Dragon Version 2 spacecraft. It was a show that could hardly be matched by the best James Bond movie-maker; dramatically lit, smoke effects and a dazzling  spacecraft, revealed as the curtain seemed to vanish magically! There was also a computer-animated video depicting a typical mission of Dv2 with special emphasis placed on its propulsive landing system.

“Now that’s the way a 21st Century spaceship should land,” Musk stated firmly.
Later Musk climbed aboard the Dv2 and demonstrated the huge flat-screen control panel, roomy cabin and sports car seating.

This was the unveiling of an innovative, game-changing spacecraft of the future that every space geek in the world dreams about… and it does not get us one step closer, one day sooner to again launching US astronauts from US soil.

Do not get me wrong, I am all for SpaceX, I think that the Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon spacecraft are amazing. I even have a Falcon 9 golf shirt, SpaceX pens, first-flight patch and a Dragon C1 patch as well as Dragon wallet made of recycled material. I truly want to see a Dragon spacecraft flying astronauts to and from space as soon as possible. I even think that Musk is a really cool guy, especially because he flies around in a Falcon Jet aircraft. Still, however, the glitz of the Dv2 unveil gave me some thoughts and concerns outside of waving the “Go SpaceX” pennant.

One of the promises of NASA’s “commercial” crew program, in which SpaceX is a major contender, is that the program will, as soon as possible, relieve United States astronauts from their dependence on the Russian Soyuz in order to get to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Recent political tensions with the Russian government have brought to light a simple aspect of that relationship that some of us considered a half dozen years ago, yet most in the spaceflight community simply did not want to think about; the Russians can now cut off all US access to the ISS at will. This has added an undercurrent of urgency to the “commercial” human spaceflight effort and it is now apparent that we, as a nation, need the three “commercial” spaceflight companies to move ahead at their best speed. Let us all keep in mind that America’s investment in the ISS is in the neighborhood of $80 Billion.

Leading the pack among the “commercial” spaceflight providers has always been SpaceX. Their Falcon 9 booster is rapidly building a reliability record and their Dragon spacecraft is making flights to and from the ISS with ocean splashdowns handled simply and inexpensively. Yet, on March 18th of 2010, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell testified before Senate committee for Assessing Commercial Space Capabilities and stated that SpaceX would reduce the time needed for Dragon to become a man-rated orbital vehicle because the Dragon, (version 1,) had been designed “from the beginning” to be a manned vehicle. Also, knowing full well that the Dragon would initiate its orbital flying in December of 2010, she told the committee, flatly, that SpaceX could fly astronauts to the ISS in “three years after we initiate." This took the other witnesses giving testimony in that same Congressional hearing quite by surprise- because they had just stated it would take them four to seven years to accomplish the same feat. As of this writing it has been four and one half years after SpaceX "initiated" Dragon's orbital flights and they are no where near flying astronauts. The schedule that SpaceX gave to the Congress at that same time showed that their Dragon spacecraft would be making its 14th cargo resupply flight to the ISS in the beginning of 2014. Thus, many in the spaceflight community saw SpaceX as the basket into which NASA should place all of its eggs.

SpaceX has lagged far behind in their projected abilities as testified to the Congress. It has been four years since Shotwell gave that ambitious statement about flying crews and they are nowhere close to actually lofting astronauts. Additionally, the Dragon spacecraft had made just three cargo re-supply flights to the ISS by the beginning of 2014, instead of the projected 14. The only claim that SpaceX made to that session of Congress that seems to have held up is the fact that the version 1 of Dragon was designed from the start to be man-rated, yet we now have a version 2 of Dragon proposed as SpaceX’s manned vehicle.

My main question here would be that since the United States is looking to fly US crews aboard US vehicles as soon as possible and “commercial” providers are supposed to have that as a part of their mission, would it not be better for our nation if SpaceX had unveiled a fully flight capable version 1 Dragon rather than a glitzy prototype of something that has not flown and probably will not fly anytime soon?

The propulsive landing system alone on the Dv2 is going to require extensive flight testing in all sorts of failure modes. Yes, I know that if two go out it can still land safely. What about other modes? If the vehicle is tumbling through the upper atmosphere can the system recover- completely, to the ground. Yes, I know they are retaining the parachute back-up. What about the dead zone, when the vehicle is too low for the chutes to deploy but still high enough to kill the crew on impact? How reliable will the new system of super draco motors be after having been in space for the longest period time that the Dv2 is expected to be on-orbit? How about longer than that? And these are just a very few of the off-the-cuff areas that will need to be flight tested on just the innovative recovery system alone. When you throw in all of the other areas that will need to be flight tested on this new vehicle, and make no mistake- this IS a totally new vehicle even though it carries the moniker of “Dragon” on its side, how many years before it can fly with NASA astronauts and civilian scientists aboard?

My guess would be that if SpaceX is determined to use the Dv2 as its human spaceflight vehicle, it will likely be hung up in testing until 2018 or 2019. Of course I disregard SpaceX’s predictions as to the flight date. As proof I will point to the claims made in front of the Congress. Their “two years” were up more than a year ago, they made their third resupply to the ISS in 2014 rather than their 14th and even their big unveiling show for Dv2 started 22 minutes late. “On-time, on-date” is a question when it comes to SpaceX.

As a fan of SpaceX and as a manned spaceflight historian what I would like to see happen is for them to fly crews to the ISS aboard flight-proven vehicles as soon as possible. Instead what I am seeing is someone’s fanciful mock-up of Fireball XL5. Again I know that Musk has stated that what he unveiled that night is a flight article. But, I ask myself, “flight?” “When?”

Back in 1969 I got a record with the sounds of spaceflight on it. I played it a zillion times. It was narrated by Frank Borman, who had then recently commanded Apollo 8 around the Moon. That recording always ended with Borman asking the rhetorical question, “…from here, where might we not go.” Looking at the Dv2 on the stage the night of the unveiling, I asked myself the same question- with the emphasis on the word “NOT.”



On the first day of June, 2014, Great Lakes maritime history suffered a great loss. Two days later I learned about this sad event by way of the web site. The event was the death of a reclusive collector of all thing Great Lakes vessel-related who tried to wear the disguise of a crotchety, grumpy old man- his name was Ralph K. Roberts and I was privileged to call him my friend.

I first met Ralph at a maritime Festival in Port Huron Michigan back in the mid-1990s. At the time I was busy signing books when one of the other authors leaned over and gave me a nudge.

"You see that guy over there," he said quietly, pointing toward a gray-haired man in the crowd, "he is THE guy when it comes to photos. That's Ralph Roberts."

After visiting a number of the other tables eventually Ralph found his way to my table. He was quiet and relatively standoffish as he thumbed through my books. Eventually we got talking about sources for photos and Ralph opened up a little bit when we discussed working with certain collections and assorted maritime museums. He began educating me on the ins and outs and who to talk to and who not to talk to. Eventually Ralph offered to give me his contact information. I opened up my little black book in which I kept names and addresses of everybody I met who could possibly help me with my writing, found a spot in the middle of the page and wrote in Ralph's address and phone number. Ralph pointed toward the phone number and said, "Make a note there to don't call often." I dutifully penned in exactly that note.

At some point Ralph asked if writing was what I did for a living. I informed him “no” that it was not my primary job as I was an airline pilot by profession. Suddenly Ralph's demeanor changed. He asked if I had ever flown at Tri-City Airport? I replied that my parent’s house was right off the end of runway 5 and I had worked at the airport as a Falcon Jet mechanic under the shop certificate while working my way through college. Ralph's eyes grew big.

"Do you know Russ Purchase?" He asked as if testing me.

"I took my private pilot checkride with Russ," I replied.

Then he asked me if I knew Bill the airframe inspector?

"Bill taught me how to rivet," I replied.

Suddenly Ralph Roberts and I had common ground as it turned out that Ralph held a airframe and powerplant certificate from the FAA and was not only a good mechanic, but was also an expert in fabric covered aircraft. Our entire conversation switched from Great Lakes maritime history to aviation. As it turned out we knew a lot of the same people in the aviation business in the mid-Michigan region. I saw a complete transformation in this person who was the enigma named Ralph Roberts. He smiled, we laughed, and we talked aviation. Pretty soon however it became clear that I had other people standing in line waiting for books to be signed and Ralph decided to move long. Just before he walked away he pointed once again to where I had written his name and address in my black book and the area where it said, "don't call often."

"Never mind that," he said, "you can call me as often as ya’ like."

A few months later I was in the Saginaw area doing some research and I gave Ralph a call. As soon as he heard that I was actually in the area, he asked me to come on over and visit. I asked for was okay if my brother came along?

"Is he a pain in the ass?" Ralph asked.

I replied that my brother was okay.

"Alright," Ralph sighed, "you just keep an eye on him."

That was typical Ralph.

His house was a spotless cozy little place on the west side of Saginaw. The room where Ralph had established his "office" was a small bedroom in the house. On one wall was a series of steel shelves that ran the length of the room from floor to ceiling which were absolutely packed with 4 inch wide black binders. These were Ralph's photos and when he pulled one of those binders out of place it was so packed with pictures that the cover sprang open. It was jaw-dropping and your first impression was to gasp "wow."

I began telling him that I was working on a story about the shipwreck of the OAKLAND and that no photographs of the steamer existed.

"Oh don't go sayin’ that," he said quietly as he reached for one of the binders.

Thumbing through the binder a bit he stopped at one page and there was the single existing photograph of the OAKLAND.

As we went through his photos that day we came upon a picture of the steamer ANDASTE. I commented that was a great shot of the ANDASTE and I had never before seen it from that angle.

"What was her sister ship?" Ralph asked quietly.

"The CHOCTAW," I responded reflexively.

"How can you tell the two apart?" Ralph quickly fired back.

"The ANDASTE had three windows in the front of her pilothouse," I answered again reflexively, "and the CHOCTAW
had four."

Ralph just gave a smirk, closed at book of photos and returned it to the shelf. It took a few seconds for what had just happened to sink in to me. Then I looked over at Ralph, put my hands on my hips and said,

"You just tested me you old fart! Didn’t ya’?”

Ralph simply smiled.

That day I brought Ralph a copy of each of my books and then autograph them for him. They went immediately into his collection and I'm not sure if he ever really read them. That's the way it goes with "collectors" if you want to visit them, see their collection, talk about their collection and be welcome to return you must take something in tribute.

As the years went by Ralph and I often exchange letters, he sent me stacks of photographs and when I was in the Saginaw area I tried to make a point to visit. Those were near magical times when we would sit in that cramped little office with a jewelers loop and study the details of old photographs. Ralph also had a brain full of true stories about people that he knew who had worked Great Lakes. I had occasion to work his stories into my books. He knew captains of vessels and people who had made a career working the lakes.

As time went by we both got older and Ralph even admitted that he was starting to, "slip a bit." On one occasion I was talking to him about my latest book.

"When are you gonna send me the damn thing." Ralph goaded.

Looking over his shoulder I saw that I had sent him the book it was on the shelf right behind him. I stood up took the book off the shelf and said, “here it is!”

"Get the hell otta’ here smart ass." He snarled with a grin.

Along the road of being an author you get the chance to meet a lot of traffic people. Ralph Roberts was someone that I was always proud to boast as being my friend. Now Ralph is gone at the ripe old age of 88 and I cannot help but think that although he assured me, many years ago, that his collection would be very well taken care of, still the Great Lakes maritime community has now lost someone special.

I am also sure that somewhere in the great beyond Ralph is watching as I write this and grumbling that he is going to kick my ass for doing it. To that I reply, "tough rocks ya’ old fart.”