For the first time in nearly a decade, the United States has launched astronauts into orbit without having to hitchhike a ride with, ironically of all people, the Russians.
A new era in the history of spaceflight began at 3:22pm yesterday as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Benhken into orbit and to the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first privately-owned spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit. The Falcon launched from the historic 39A pad, which saw launches during both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
What would have undoubtedly been a media and public frenzy in normal times was very subdued thanks to the ongoing China-originating COVID 19 Pandemic. Still, though, President Trump and Vice President Pence, who have spearheaded the effort to reassert America’s dominant place in space, were in attendance, with the president declaring “the decades of lost years and little action are officially over.”
To be perfectly honest, America’s space program of the 21st century to this point could be described as lost not in space, but on the ground.
With mounting calls for the retirement of the Space Shuttle following the 2003 Columbia disaster, then President George W. Bush announced the Constellation Program in 2005, which sought to return Americans to the Moon by 2020 via heavy lift rockets similar to the Saturn V. There were to be two versions of the new Aries rocket: one designed for manned launches and another designed for heavy cargo payloads.
By 2009, a study concluded that Constellation was grossly over budget. As a result, in early 2010, then President Obama announced that Constellation was going to be canceled and replaced with a single rocket: the Space Launch System (SLS), which could be built in multiple configurations while utilizing technology originally developed for Constellation.
Fast forward 9 years and it's more of the same.
The first SLS launch at the program’s 2010 announcement was targeted to be an unmanned capsule sent around the Moon in December, 2017. The first manned flight was targeted for mid 2021. Obviously, December, 2017 is years in the rear view mirror and the SLS has yet to leave the ground. The latest in an ever-slipping schedule has the SLS’s first unmanned launched, now officially titled Artemis 1, taking place in November, 2021.
However, manned American spaceflight has a new champion in President Trump, who has made it very clear that he intends to see to it that Americans will once again be able to not only fly themselves into space, which we now have done, but to the Moon.
Last year, NASA announced that its Project Artemis (the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology) seeks to land astronauts on the Moon again by 2024 with the long-term goal being the creation of a permanently manned lunar base that will serve as a stepping stone to Mars. Making the upcoming journey especially interesting is a new player in space that wasn't even imaginable in the 1960s: the private sector, which completely bypasses the shifting winds of party politics in Washington D.C..
While there are now numerous private companies involved in spaceflight, the far and away leader of the proverbial pack is SpaceX.
Looking at SpaceX and what it has achieved since its 2002 founding is like looking at a shopping list. SpaceX was the first private company to: launch a rocket into orbit (2008), orbit and then recover a spacecraft (2010), send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (2012), complete a propulsive landing of a rocket (2015), reuse a rocket (2017), launch a payload into solar orbit (2018), and now launch astronauts into orbit as of yesterday.
The most intriguing possibility, however, is that offered by SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. First launched in February, 2018, according to NASA, the Falcon Heavy is capable of launching astronauts to the Moon, although the SLS is the preferred option. With the SLS falling ever farther behind schedule, there is a very real possibility that the Falcon Heavy could be NASA's ticket to the Moon by 2024 if the SLS is not ready to go in time.
Yes, these are not the 1960s when manned spaceflight was a matter of national priority and pride, but the possibilities offered by the private sector are undoubtedly exciting, too. NASA astronauts riding a privately-owned rocket to the Moon? The idea would have seemed crazy in 1969 but, come 2020, this could be the future of America in space.
The future of manned spaceflight may look different, but the possibilities are truly limitless and with the private sector coming on board, could do a lot to show the world that America’s ingenuity and industry are far and away the best in the world.