NASA and Elon Musk are ready to explore unchartered territories in enabling a private space economy. Here are a few talking points to help you make sense of the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission – the historic first private manned mission to space.
When NASA backed SpaceX launches two astronauts in its Crew Dragon capsule aboard the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, the human quest in space will take a new turn – for better or worse. Private space industry rockstar Elon Musk, with his 18-year old SpaceX, will try and become the first private player to launch humans into space and bring them back safely, fulfilling a “sacred honor”.
“Those are meaningful words when we say that. Our job is to carry Bob and Doug to the space station … and then we need to bring them home safely back to their families.”Benjamin Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, at a pre-launch news conference
The SpaceX rocket launch is probably the biggest news in months unrelated to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. There’s a lot at stake that media touts – two lives, America’s chance to reclaim the ‘leadership’ in the space race, vitality to future privatization of the domain, redemption for the obsessive, erratic Elon Musk. And a chance for President Donald Trump to bully pulpit the ‘Put Man back on the Moon’ magic trick, when all else has failed for him.
Then there are aspects that make it a seemingly regular mission. For NASA and space technology, not much is unprecedented. It would be the federal space agency’s 61st mission. The two veteran NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken are decorated test pilots boasting a combined 57 days in space. The mission objective is also not new. NASA has been attempting to deliver routine slights to space since the Space Shuttle days, decades ago.
But what blinds us from analyzing the actual value that should be attached to such ‘great steps for man’ is the flawed, long-standing sense of unity and patriotism that Americans are made to feel from them. The launchpad for SpaceX and NASA’s Demo-2 mission is a historic one – Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin took off from the same spot and made the first lunar landing. The space shuttle too was launched right here. And now, SpaceX, which leased the launchpad for 20 years in 2014, will give years of fodder to every geek’s ultimate dream of going to space.
Watch: SpaceX Crew Dragon In-Flight Escape Demonstration
A new era for America’s space program?
NASA lost its spacefaring independence when the shuttle Atlantis completed its final mission in 2011. The Barack Obama Administration, unenthusiastic about spending billions in new launch rockets, abandoned the human-launch Constellation program. The Commercial Crew program has been NASA’s sole focus for achieving astronaut launch on American soil since then.
“We’re on the cusp of proving it,”NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on the prospects of the Commercial Crew Program
Aiming to achieve consistency and affordability, the two parameters where Space Shuttle failed, NASA projects the Commercial Crew program will cost $20-30 billion in the long run. Since 2010, NASA has paid close to $8 billion to SpaceX ($3.1 bn) and Boeing ($4.8 bn). The space agency has already faced criticism about the project with both SpaceX and Boeing projects hitting years of delay. Furthermore, an “unnecessary” extra $287 million paid by NASA to Boeing to address costs due to the company’s delay has sparked controversy. If SpaceX succeeds, it would come as a huge relief for NASA after the failure of Boeing’s Starliner during an unmanned test flight to ISS in December 2019. For NASA, the Commercial Crew program is only a tad faster than the space shuttle which took 11 years before Columbia made its maiden space voyage in April 1981.
But most of all, the success of SpaceX’s launch will give NASA a newfound impetus in its future spacefaring independence strategy in space through reliance on private all-American partnerships. NASA has been paying $86 million per astronaut to send them to the ISS from Russia‘s launchpad in Kazakhstan for the last nine years. The Commercial Crew program aims to enable a partly funded service where NASA can buy rides in a domestic “for-hire space economy”. NASA’s newfound enthusiasm could widen the umbrella and include more players like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Orbit.
Trump in attendance – Why?
Amid all the coronavirus chaos, a successful SpaceX launch could come as a life-saver for Trump, who along with his Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to attend the “historic event”. The launch will directly feed Trump’s ambitious demands where he wants NASA to conduct a manned moon mission in 2024.
“I’d like to put you on the rocket and get rid of you for a while.”President Donald Trump inviting White House reporters to the launch event
With the election on the horizon and ratings spiraling inversely proportional to the coronavirus cases in the US, this might be the only positive campaign propaganda that Trump has in his arsenal. In fact, with reports of SpaceX and Boeing mission delays, the Government Accountability Office under Trump Administration advised NASA in June 2019 to also formulate alternate plans for capsules to send astronauts to the ISS, in case SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and the Boeing attempt get delayed.
The success of public-private partnerships in space is the only way Trump can have his way in an atmosphere where every extra penny in the direction will be frowned upon by US lawmakers unanimously. In fact, NASA’s Artemis mission to fulfill Trump’s moon wish is heavily invested in private partnerships for lunar landers that make rides from and back to Earth as a service. But the most reassuring immediate reprieve for will be the distraction that the SpaceX mission brings and the Cold War era trick where such endeavors help the average citizen with a sense of American supremacy and patriotism. At a time when many are addressing President Trump as a murderer for the unfathomable COVID-19 death toll which they believe is a direct result of the federal government’s mismanagement of the pandemic.
For the Average American
Space Industry experts and backers of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch mission believe the success will enable a lot more investment and opening up space to a wider demography. Such an ecosystem will benefit smaller countries without launch facilities to purchase space from private players bypassing foreign diplomacy in their space program mission. The promise of the private space economy is touted to benefit pharmaceutical and other industries enabling them to send scientists to ISS. Then comes the promise of space tourism, the other big implication that attracts millions of geeks around the world.
“Commercial Crew is the first step. Individuals like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are looking to fulfill the promises of science fiction.”Garrett Reisman, former Astronaut, SpaceX consultant, and professor at the University of Southern California
But the space travel fantasy that such programs promise is reserved for the wealthy enthusiasts. The narrative is similar to what backs investments in the edge of space flight concept at Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, albeit more immersive and certainly more expensive. In essence, the less enthusiastic side of the spectrum points out that the difference in the SpaceX mission is nothing more than symbolic.
“What’s different is that there will be a SpaceX logo on the spacecraft and the rocket and that the final launch decision is the responsibility of the private sector.”John Logsdon, founder, Space Policy Institute at George Washington University points out that the biggest difference is “primarily symbolic”
The said, symbolism counts when it comes to space missions, as history proves. When the Shuttle program concluded in 2011, it gravely hit NASA’s popular perception. Experts believe that for an average American, high-profile manned missions are the only projects viewed as true spaceflights. NASA knows this perception well and its future vision of developing an orbiting habitat around the moon called the Gateway is a bet to this cause. So, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off with two humans in the Crew Dragon capsule on Wednesday 27 May 2020 at 4:33 pm EDT from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the biggest takeaway would be relaunching a true-blue maverick space mission from American soil. An event that rekindles some of our lost romance with NASA.