Elon Musk's SpaceX chases history with launch while bigger hurdles loom
SpaceX's first flight with humans aboard is spurring the competitive space industry to new heights, with Boeing also preparing to carry people to orbitby Bloomberg
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is angling to become the first US company to join an elite club of government space powers with the know-how and wealth to blast humans into orbit.
While that’s uncharted territory, what comes next will be far more difficult. Musk is trying to turn such voyages into a sustainable business that supports a thriving space colony hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface and, ultimately, bankrolls forays to the moon and Mars.
SpaceX’s first flight with humans aboard is spurring the competitive space industry to new heights, with Boeing also preparing to carry people to orbit as part of the same Nasa programme. Musk, meanwhile, has inspired plans for reusable rockets from traditional launch powerhouses and new entrants like Blue Origin, backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. There’s also a race to develop smaller launch vehicles, even as the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic threatens funding.
“We’re standing at the threshold of all of this commercial activity in space,” said Wayne Hale, who led the space shuttle programme for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and helped develop the agency’s strategy to spur private-sector flight. “One of the points of this exercise is to build a commercial business that can go on and do things in space that are not funded by the taxpayer.”
Or as Musk put it: “Open your eyes, look up to the skies.” He posted the tweet quoting Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics on May 22, hours after Nasa cleared Space Exploration Technologies for the groundbreaking mission — Demo-2.
If all goes to plan, Nasa astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will lift off from Cape Canaveral, bound for the International Space Station in a Dragon capsule attached to a Falcon 9 rocket until separation roughly 12 minutes after launch.
It’s the first such journey in a commercially developed spacecraft, and would end the nation’s nine-year dependence on
craft to send astronauts to the orbiting lab. For SpaceX, it’s a milestone that was 18 years in the making, undertaken against formidable odds and much scepticism, even from the Apollo legends who spurred Musk’s imagination as a child.
The drive to commercialise human spaceflight has progressed in fits and starts since the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid his own way to the ISS aboard a Russian spacecraft in 2001. A decade ago, then-President Barack Obama cancelled the shuttle programme and handed responsibility for missions in low Earth orbit to private enterprise through contracts awarded by Nasa.
Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Bloomberg TV: “We need SpaceX to go get customers that are not Nasa.”