NASA’s first manned flight since 2011 is being advertised as America’s hopeful return to space, to boldly go where no man has before. Is it really?
Yes and no.
Wednesday’s launch to the International Space Station, nine years after the end of the space shuttle programme, is definitely a milestone. Those nine years were the longest stretch of time since 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, that the US didn’t have the ability to launch its own astronauts. Since 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz rockets.
Add to that the commercial significance of the launch by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It is the first orbital launch of US astronauts by a private company.
Analysts say the use of commercial spacecraft and rockets will free up the US federal agency for more weighty things such as getting humans on to Mars. The argument goes that buying services in low-Earth orbit rather than providing them will allow NASA to pursue its own grand plan for the next phase of space exploration, while enabling commercial exploitation of the relatively low-tech capability to fly private astronauts and even tourists to the International Space Station.
This is the context of Tom Cruise’s fervent hope that he will shoot his next film 250 miles above Earth.
“This is a new generation — a new era — in human spaceflight,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in early May. (Watch the official NASA livestream right here.)
That’s a bold claim but true as far as the facts go. Here on in, private-sector spaceflight will make it possible to breach new economic frontiers. Space tourism beckons as a possibility, which may be a handy aspiration considering the pandemic has halted travel on earth. That said, it’s not clear as yet if there will be big returns from business activity in space.
Even so, the launch makes for good politics. President Donald Trump travelled to Florida to watch the SpaceX launch knowing that the US space program enjoys substantial support across party lines. President Donald Trump travelled to Florida to watch the SpaceX launch knowing that the US space program enjoys substantial support across party lines.
Mr Trump’s political rival, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee Joe Biden, has also allied with the milestone. Mr Biden’s campaign organized a press call with the former NASA administrator Charles Bolden and former Senator Bill Nelson of Florida crediting former vice-president Biden as a key advocate of commercial spaceflights. It was 10 years ago that Mr Biden’s boss, President Obama, announced a plan to rely on private companies for American trips to the International Space Station.
But it’s not clear if this moment is as much of a triumph as some suggest. Some question the logic of “a new era of mainly billionaire-backed, space exploration”, strewing debris in space and treating it in the same heedless way as Earth.
Meanwhile, some American outlets describe the SpaceX launch as “a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark time for the world”.
Beacon or a bad omen? How to categorise the SpaceX launch?
More than half a century after the Apollo 11 moon landing, the jury is out on the implications of Wednesday’s giant leap for commercial ventures in space.