On Wednesday, May 27, History is set to be made when SpaceX launches humans into space for the first time. Their Dragon Capsule will be carried into orbit by their Falcon 9 rocket with the final destination being the International Space Station (ISS). The crew of this mission will consist of two NASA veteran Astronauts: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
So, since Americans have been travelling to space since Alan Shepherd first made it there almost 60 years ago, one has to ask why this is important. There are several reasons.
First, this flight will mark the first time that NASA has launched American astronauts into space aboard American vehicles from American soil in nearly ten years. It was in 2011 that NASA retired the space shuttle program which had been a work horse of space exploration for nearly thirty years.
Since that time, NASA has relied on another method of getting their astronauts into space. This other method has been the somewhat distasteful agreement of purchasing seats aboard Russian spacecraft to the tune of $80 million dollars. While science knows no international borders and doesn’t care for political disagreements, the average American does. It would be much more satisfying to tax payers if that practice ended in favor of launching our own space craft once more.
The second reason making this a special occasion is that it marks a major development in a public-private partnership in space exploration. Since 1958, the year NASA was formed, the American government has had a monopoly on space exploration in America. At the time, and for most of the years since, the only other competition was the space program of the Soviet Union and its successor state Russia. In more recent years, other governments have started space programs as well. The most prominent of which are the European Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the China National Space Administration. All government agencies.
In 2010, however, NASA decided to try something different. It decided to launch the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to contract out low Earth orbital operations to private companies. The company SpaceX was one of the prime beneficiaries of that decision. The company, headed by Elon Musk, has been ferrying supplies to the International Space Station since 2012. This mission will mark the first time that the company has launched human beings into space aboard their equipment.
SpaceX, while the most recognizable name associated with this program at this time, is not the only kid on the block. The company Blue Origin which is associated with Jeff Bezos is working to make space tourism a reality and has been selected to develop a moon lander for a mission set for 2024. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, led by Richard Branson, is also in the space tourism game and is working to put small satellites into orbit for private companies as well. Boeing, the airline manufacturer, has also entered the space business and is developing a rocket it plans to launch next year.
Another important consideration is that this marks the culmination of a new management strategy for NASA. The goal of working with private companies for low orbit operations such as this is to free NASA ‘s energies to focus on more long-term projects like returning to the moon and eventually putting people on Mars. In theory, this will cut costs to the space agency. This upcoming mission came in at a total cost of just over $6 billion, making it the lowest cost human space flight in 60 years.
For his part, President Trump has been supportive of American activity in space. His launch of the new military branch Space Force is just one example. Both he and Vice-President Pence are expected to be at the launch to witness it first-hand.
While they will be there, NASA is discouraging citizens who want to witness it in person from doing so on account of fears of the Corona Virus. For those who want to witness it, it will be readily available through online streaming and television broadcast. Should weather hinder the launch, a back-up date of May 30 has been scheduled.