By Irene Klotz May 27, 2020
Barring poor weather or last-minute technical glitches, shortly after 4:30 P.M. Eastern time today, a spaceship carrying two crew members will blast off on a rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The flight will be bound for the International Space Station (ISS), but its true destination is the annals of space history: it will be the first time that U.S. astronauts have been launched from American soil since the final flight of the space shuttle program in 2011—and that anyone has flown to space using a commercially built crew capsule and rocket.
Much changed after humans last flew to space from the nation. Most obviously, the U.S.’s relations with Russia have frayed, although both countries have isolated their space program from politics. And they have continued a strong partnership to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS onboard Russian Soyuz rockets. Life-protecting pressurized suits have changed, too: The new flight’s two astronauts, NASA veterans Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, will not wear the fluorescent orange ensembles of the space shuttle era. Instead they will be clad in sleek, monochrome one-piece outfits that are lighter-weight, more maneuverable and much better looking. The suits, like the mission’s Crew Dragon capsule and reusable Falcon 9 rocket, were designed and manufactured by aerospace company SpaceX. Gone, too, are the old-fashioned “Astrovans”—souped-up motor homes that transferred NASA astronauts from crew quarters to the launchpad for most of the past half-century. To reach the rocket for this Demonstration Mission 2 (Demo-2) test flight, Behnken and Hurley will ride in style within an all-electric Model X sport utility vehicle provided by SpaceX’s sister company Tesla.
Such is the new era of American spaceflight, in which the federal government seeks cheaper, safer and more reliable access to orbit not by directly building and operating fleets of spaceships and rockets but rather by spending tax dollars on launch services provided by private companies. All previous human spaceflight programs have been based on systems developed, owned and run by government space agencies. Now, via its Commercial Crew program—which is itself a follow-on to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program initiated in the mid-2000s—NASA is instead buying seats and stowage on SpaceX assets. That strategy should free up funds for the agency to spend on other projects—deep-space exploration and transformative science missions—which presently remain out of reach for private enterprise.
The hope is that federal investment in low-cost, reliable and safe space transportation will spur rapid innovation and create entirely new opportunities for economic growth. The approach has an antecedent in the development of the commercial satellite industry, which, as of 2019, is worth more than $277 billion, in large part because of initial phases of robust governmental financial support. “The Commercial Crew program has been a great experiment by NASA to see if commercial companies can do this particular job,” says Wayne Hale, a former shuttle program manager who now serves as a consultant engineering firm Special Aerospace Services.
NASA has pumped more than $8.2 billion into the Commercial Crew program since its inception in 2010. Most of those funds have gone to Boeing and SpaceX, which were each awarded development and flight-service contracts in 2014. This commercial partnership approach, says NASA’s commercial spaceflight director Phil McAlister, has saved the agency some $20 billion to $30 billion that it would have had to otherwise spend developing new human-rated rockets and spacecraft under traditional contracting methods.