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A new era for American human spaceflight

May 27, 2020

The buzz about the NASA SpaceX test flight, Demo-2, is palpable. Tagged "Launch America," it's the first crewed mission to launch from US soil since the Shuttle program ended. But it's been in the making since Apollo.

NASA and SpaceX are to launch the first astronauts from American soil since 2011 in a Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station
Image: flickr/Official SpaceX Photos

Everything about this NASA SpaceX Demo-2 mission is symbolic. It seems that every effort has been made to draw a direct parallel between the last human spaceflight from America, and the Apollo moon missions before that.

Demo-2 is the first human mission from the US' Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida since 2011. That's when NASA's final space shuttle, the STS-135, flew to the International Space Station (ISS).

Its human crew, veteran American astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, join the ISS Expedition 63. Christopher Cassidy, another US veteran who flew with Hurley on Space Shuttle STS-127, is already there.

Read more: From Apollo 11 to the new space race

Hurley was the lead robotics operator for Space Shuttle mission STS‐127 and that final mission, STS‐135. Behnken, meanwhile, flew on STS-123 and STS-130. So, this a virtual homecoming for both men. 

Veteran US astronauts, Robert Behnken (left) and Douglas Hurley (right)
A virtual homecoming on the International Space Station for veteran US astronauts, Robert Behnken (left) and Douglas Hurley (right)Image: flickr/Official SpaceX Photos

Then there's the launch site, Complex 39A. Originally built for the Apollo moon missions, which flew from 1969 to 1972, the 39A launch site was modified for the Space Shuttle program. And in 2014 SpaceX signed a 20-year lease to run the site.

A new commercial era?

NASA's collaboration with SpaceX is part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program.

The program sounds new, like a break with tradition, but it's not. Even the Apollo missions were deeply steeped in commercial industry — the Lunar Module on that historic Apollo 11 mission was made by an old US defense contractor called Grumman. And those collaborations never stopped.

In fact, the US administration under President Donald Trump has said it wants yet more of NASA's work to be offloaded to commercial space and engineering sectors.

Read more: 'You could send Congress to space,' says Ted Cruz but, alas, Donald Trump declines

One may speculate that such a move would allow government bodies to focus on another stated American aim — to militarize space (contrary to the Outer Space Treaty). France, China and India have similar intentions — primarily, it's said, to protect satellite infrastructure in space.

But NASA sees itself primarily as a scientific organization. Its links to commercial space industries have tended to be based on pragmatism. NASA focuses on the early stage science and hands-off mainstream development to those companies, such as SpaceX or Boeing, who, unlike the American taxpayer, are willing to take the financial risk.

NASA has awarded upward of $400 million (and more) to stimulate efforts in the private sector to development and demonstrate safe, reliable and cost-effective crew transportation systems. That includes companies such Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, the United Launch Alliance, to name a few.

Other players in the field

Inside the Crew Dragon space vehicle
It's kinda spacey inside Crew Dragon: An upgrade on space interior design.Image: flickr/Official SpaceX Photos

SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule for human spaceflight may be the first to pass its uncrewed test stages, but it still has to be fully certified for operation. 

Either way, it's likely that the Demo-2 mission will come to be considered a turning point for America in space — one with ramifications for Russia's space program and international collaborations. 

Read more: France details military 'command of space' plans to protect satellites

Russia has had a virtual monopoly on human spaceflight since 2011, with its mainstay Soyuz vehicle launching astronauts to the ISS from Baikonur on a roughly six-month rota. 

And SpaceX is not even alone in the field.

Boeing is also collaborating with NASA to develop a competitor capsule called CST-100 Starliner. Boeing is still testing uncrewed missions. It's next test is, at time of writing, unscheduled.

And there's the Orion spacecraft, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, ESA.

Artist impression of the Orion spacecraft
Nothing happens in space without collaboration: The Orion spacecraft is a multinational effort by the USA and Europe Image: flickr/NASA Orion Spacecraft

That project is both non-commercial and commercial, with contractors like Airbus constructing its service modules. In the US alone, at least 3,800 contractors are working on Orion and the rocket that will launch it, the Space Launch System (SLS).

The three capsules: quick facts

All three capsules are reusable. They go to space, return to Earth, and are launched again. Reusability has been a vital development in space exploration as it makes an incredibly expensive endeavor slightly more sustainable.

Infografik SpaceX Raumkapsel Vergleich mit Boeing und NASA EN

As things stand, only SpaceX and Orion aim to venture beyond the ISS. SpaceX has set its sights on Mars, while Orion is tied to the Artemis moon program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. SpaceX with Crew Dragon plans to be part of that mission, too.

This brings space exploration full circle in some ways: In Greek mythology, Artemis, a Greek goddess, was the twin of Apollo. 

Breaking with history

Crew Dragon does, however, break with at least one tradition — spacecraft interior design that leaves something to be desired. The capsule is a total upgrade in space interiors, as are the spacesuits. It's like something out of the Stanley Kubrick's movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," but an SUV for astronauts. 

Finally, one might highlight what appears to be a single oversight in SpaceX and NASA's attention to historic detail: the fact that final Space Shuttle mission in 2011 had a female astronaut, Sandy Magnus, onboard.


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DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people