The nation that once led the space race, sending six awe-inspiring missions to the surface of the Moon, was reduced to paying the Russians to hitch a ride on their Soyuz spacecraft every time it wanted to put US astronauts on the International Space Station. Until now. Tomorrow, weather permitting, US astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will be launched into space by an American rocket for the first time since 2011. More importantly, the SpaceX Dragon will mark a historic advance in space travel as the first commercial spacecraft carrying astronauts into Earth orbit.
“If successful, it’s a giant leap towards a planned return to the Moon, and even putting a crew on Mars,” says space technology expert Doug Messier, editor of Parabolic Arc. “It’s a major step forward, giving America the ability to launch its own people into space without relying on the Russians.
“Crucially, it will allow us to get seven people up on the International Space Station, which will double the amount of research getting done, as so much of the crew’s time is spent on maintenance.”
The mission could also open up space to commercial payloads and tourism.
US aerospace company Axiom recently signed a deal with SpaceX to ferry paying passengers to the ISS as early as next year.
Tourists will spend at least eight days savouring out-of-this world views – more than the few minutes of microgravity promised by Virgin Galactic tourist flights that won’t attain Earth orbit.
Much of Nasa’s hopes will be riding on the success of this week’s flight of the SpaceX commercial space technology developed by Tesla electric vehicle creator Elon Musk.
Just as President John F Kennedy 59 years ago vowed to put a man on the Moon, so President Donald Trump has promised to return American astronauts to the Moon by 2024, and onward to Mars. “The United States has been a space-faring nation for decades,” said Trump earlier this month.
“Space is going to be the future, both in terms of defence and offence, in so many other things,” he added, tacitly acknowledging the potential threat to Allied phone and internet communications from armed enemy satellites.
Trump is also launching the Space Force, a new branch of the US military, with a newly unveiled insignia that appears surprisingly similar to that seen on TV on Star Trek’s Starfleet Command uniforms.
While America struggles through a pandemic-driven recession, its space ambitions are once again flying high. Nasa’s Artemis programme aims to put astronauts back on the moon within four short years.
The space agency will also build the Lunar Gateway, a mini-space station orbiting the moon where crews can ready equipment for a future base on the lunar surface, and as a stepping stone toward Mars.
“It is an opportunity for us to take humans deeper into space than we’ve ever gone before in human history,” says Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine. And a new Mars rover, named Perseverance, is to be launched by Nasa as early as July, testing technologies to “address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars”, says the space agency.
“We’re well on our way to making Nasa’s moon-to-Mars mission a reality,” says US vice president Mike Pence, inviting commercial partners to build the Lunar Gateway a nd Moon base. “Using what we learn on the moon will bring us closer to the day… that American astronauts will plant the Stars and Stripes on the surface of Mars.”
But this week’s historic launch is crucial: the first time that the lives of American astronauts have been entrusted to a commercial carrier to put them into orbit.
SpaceX’s 229ft Falcon 9 rocket stands towering over Launch Complex 39A at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its nine Merlin engines can generate more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust: more than five Boeing 747s at full blast.
Sitting atop the Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, 13ft wide and almost 27ft tall, which can ferry up to seven astronauts into space, though this week only two will be aboard: Hurley and Behnken.
While Nasa astronauts are traditionally driven to the launchpad in a retro-style silver van, this duo will each roll up in shiny new Tesla Model X sports cars – American commercialism at its finest. You would hardly expect less from Musk, who famously launched a cherry red Tesla Roadster into space atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018.
If the flight is a success, Musk has already signed a £2.12billion contract with Nasa’s Commercial Crew Programme to loft six crewed flights to the ISS. Though SpaceX’s name is on the side of the giant rocket, the project has Nasa to thank.
“Nasa has funded 90 percent or more of the development of this rocket,” says Messier. “Nasa is still absolutely a force to be reckoned with, and the SpaceX launch this week wouldn’t be happening without Nasa.” Said Nasa: “The incredible dedication by the men and women of Nasa is what has made this mission possible.”
The American space agency has also heavily funded the development of rival commercial space projects by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Dynetics, which should give Nasa the choice of three launch vehicles by 2022.
“It has been a little embarrassing that America couldn’t take its own astronauts into space, especially for all those years,” admits Messier.
“But after the Apollo missions got to the moon, nobody was exactly sure what to do next, at the time there was little appetite for a mission to Mars, and Nasa was also underfunded by Congress. But finally there’s a will for crewed missions to explore space again.” Not that it’s always going to be a smooth ride. Nasa’s chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, resigned from his post last week – a worrying development coming just days before the SpaceX launch.
Insiders have indicated that he quit after admitting mistakes were made in Nasa’s selection of lunar landing partners in the rush to meet a 2024 moon landing deadline many view as unrealistic.
SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics have been promised a combined £956million from Nasa to each develop a lunar lander. But first, SpaceX’s Dragon must prove itself by safely launching into orbit, docking with the ISS, and bringing its astronauts back to Earth – alive.
Nobody at Nasa has forgotten the loss of seven astronauts in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after take-off in 1986, or the seven crew members aboard the Shuttle Columbia that broke up on re-entry in 2003.
Though Musk’s technology worked well enough when an uncrewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft autonomously docked with the ISS in March 2019, this week’s mission, dubbed “Demo-2,” is still very much considered a test flight.
“Nasa and SpaceX do their best to reduce the risk, but anything can go catastrophically wrong, which can delay space programmes for years,” says Messier.
“Space travel is still a risky business.”
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