The last time the United States launched humans into space from U.S. soil was in 2011, when the last space shuttle made its last orbital voyage. Since then, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport its astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). This solution has become increasingly expensive and has limited U.S. access to the station.
All this could change on Saturday, May 30, 2020. If weather, equipment and other factors cooperate, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, built with NASA funding, will launch astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS as part of a mission called “Demo-2.” The launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, but was cancelled 17 minutes before takeoff due to poor weather conditions — specifically, the presence of thick clouds called cumulonimbus clouds and an electric field that could trigger lightning.
A successful flight would resurrect the ability of the United States to launch humans into space. It would also mark SpaceX’s first mission with passengers in the company’s 18-year history. “It’s the culmination of a dream,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told “CBS This Morning” a few hours before Wednesday’s launch. “It’s a dream come true. In fact, it sounds surreal. If you had asked me at the launch of SpaceX if this was going to happen, I would have said: “1% chance, 0.1% chance”.
If the Demo-2 mission is successful, it will also mark the first commercial crewed flight ever made, ushering in a new era of space exploration.
‘American astronauts on American rockets from US soil’
Russia has used its monopoly on spaceflight to charge more and more for every NASA astronaut to pay for the round-trip ticket. The cost increased from about $21 million in 2008 (before the withdrawal of the U.S. Space Shuttle) to more than $90 million per seat for a flight scheduled for October.
A seat aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is expected to cost $55 million, according to NASA’s inspector general. That’s why NASA began funding SpaceX and its competitor, Boeing, to develop man-made spacecraft in 2010. This effort, called the Commercial Crew Program, has exceeded its original deadline by three years.
Having a spacecraft and a launch system in the United States would give NASA better access to the ISS. While the Soyuz can carry only three people at a time, the Crew Dragon can accommodate seven.
When NASA can send more astronauts at a lower cost, it can also use the ISS microgravity environment to conduct more scientific experiments — in pharmacy, materials science, astronomy, medicine, etc.
“The International Space Station is an essential capability for the United States of America. It is also essential to have access to it,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a may 1 televised briefing. “We are moving very quickly in this program, which is so important to our nation and, indeed, to the whole world.” He added, “We’re going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from U.S. soil.”
Demo-2 mission brings SpaceX closer to the Moon and Mars
SpaceX has big plans. Elon Musk dreams of flying people around the Moon and later landing on the lunar surface, then establishing Martian cities and putting a million settlers on the red planet. At the forefront of commercial flights, SpaceX also plans to fly space tourists. In February, the company announced that it had sold four seats through a space tourism company called Space Adventures. Then in March, it was announced that Axiom Space — led in part by a former ISS mission manager at NASA — had also signed an agreement with SpaceX.
Even Tom Cruise intends to fly aboard the Dragon Crew in order to shoot a new action film about the ISS.
NASA shares some of Elon Musk’s ambitions (returning humans to the Moon and possibly Mars) but there are many steps to take. Sending astronauts to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon is the first big step.
But the mission will not be considered a success until astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken return to Earth. “We’re going to stay hungry until Bob and Doug return,” Kathy Lueders, who manages NASA’s commercial crew program, said at a briefing Friday. “Our teams are studying and thinking about all the risks that exist,” she added.