At almost 3 a.m. local time Saturday, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on board one of the company’s reusable Falcon 9 Rockets, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.
The Crew Dragon is the first American spacecraft able to carry astronauts to have launched since the space shuttle was retired. It will now continue on its journey to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s rocket’s first stage has already landed on a droneship in the middle of the Atlantic, for future reuse – an innovation by SpaceX that has greatly reduced the cost of the launches. So far, they’ve successfully recovered over half of the Falcon 9 Rockets they’ve launched.
As for the Crew Dragon, this was just a test flight – there was no one on board. But if the rest of the mission is successful, SpaceX could be sending astronauts into space later this year.
In 2014, along with Boeing, SpaceX was awarded a NASA contract to bring astronauts to the space station. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spacecraft. Instead of developing and building its own alternative, NASA turned to private companies that were already aiming to send astronauts in space – a goal for SpaceX since it was founded in 2002.
“It’s been 17 years to get to this point,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said of Saturday’s launch.
In the years since the space shuttle was retired, it has seemed to some observers like NASA has been stagnating. And as companies like SpaceX have made rapid progress on innovations that will make space travel more affordable, and eventually more common, some have viewed them as threats to the dominance of government-funded space exploration – the final nail in the coffin of a dying era.
And indeed, it does seem like the end of a certain era of space travel. Since the end of the Apollo missions in 1975, NASA has focused on robotic exploration of the solar system, increasingly leaving crewed spaceflight to Russia.
Last month, a strong dust storm ended the 15-year mission of NASA’s Opportunity rover. What was originally slated as a 90-day mission lasted a decade and a half, and revealed new dimensions to the history of the red planet. It even found evidence that Mars was once home to water that could have supported life. Now, NASA is planning a 2020 rover to look specifically for “signs of ancient life.” It will collect samples for analysis back on Earth.
But for now, there’s no clear route to funding or carrying out a mission to bring the samples back. The timeline is vague, with samples not making it back to Earth until the 2030s, and projected costs approaching $4 billion.
The agency doesn’t imagine sending humans to Mars until the 2030s. The incremental approach that NASA used to work up to sending humans on the three-day trip to the moon will be much slower and more costly for the months-long trip to Mars.
Meanwhile, Musk believes SpaceX could send people to Mars as soon as 2024.
As Tanya Harrison said last month, writing for the Houston Chronicle:
“Perhaps the best approach would be for NASA and SpaceX to work together to get humans to Mars more quickly so we can more efficiently — time- and cost-wise — answer the question as to whether the Red Planet ever harbored life.”
The idea that private spaceflight threatens NASA amounts to a misunderstanding of why the agency exists. In light of the rise of SpaceX, NASA has said it’s changing the way it works with commercial firms in order to “free” itself to look further, toward deep space.
In other words, as shuttling astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station becomes commonplace, NASA’s goal will be to move toward the most cutting-edge and challenging aspects of space exploration. This is where its big budgets and non-commercial priorities come in handy.
According to American University School of Public Affairs professor Howard McCurdy:
“The whole idea is that NASA is at the point of a spear. It’s like exploration of any terrestrial realm. This is the way the model is supposed to work.”
In fact, this has been part of the plan for some time. When Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, partnerships like that of NASA and SpaceX were exactly what they had in mind. And many casual observers may be overlooking the fact that NASA awarded SpaceX $278 million in 2006 to develop the Falcon 9 Rocket and Dragon capsule. They later contributed a further $118 million, and Space X finished the job with its own $454 million.
SpaceX would have never achieved its level of credibility without NASA as its best customer, financial supporter, and technical advisor. So when SpaceX seems to achieve things more quickly and cheaply than NASA ever could, it’s important to remember how public funding and planning fueled those efforts.
Rather than eclipsing the US space agency, SpaceX innovations could allow for a new era of space exploration, in which cheaper and more efficient space transport allows NASA to look toward the space exploration milestones of the next generation.
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