For the first time in nearly 10 years, a crewed NASA rocket will launch from US soil. This will undoubtfully impact the future of space exploration and the development of the industry.
Scheduled for 27 May, it’s the first NASA crewed launch on United States soil since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. The launch is the second in the partnership with SpaceX, the first being an uncrewed launch to the International Space Station (ISS) using the Demo-1.
May’s crewed launch will be using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Spacecraft. SpaceX has been awarded over $3.1billion under the Commercial Crew program to fund the capsule’s development.
What is the Commercial Crew Program?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been at the forefront of space exploration since the 1950s. As a government agency, much of its operations are impacted by the current US administration. However, space exploration is rapidly expanding outside of the government sector, largely with NASA’s help.
The Commercial Crew Programhas been collaborating with aerospace industry companies since 2010. “[The goal is] safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station. And to foster commercial access to other potential low-Earth orbit destinations,” said NASA.
Since 2011, the only means of human transport to the ISS has been the Russian Soyuz Spacecraft. According to space.com NASA currently pays “tens of millions of dollars per seat to regularly put American astronauts aboard flights,” through the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNBC: “We need access to the International Space Station from the United States of America. Commercial Crew is the program that’s going to make that happen. It’s essential for our country to have that capability.”
A large part is to ease the reliance on international flights. Becoming independent allows the United States unobstructed access to space.
Privatisation of space travel
In 2014 SpaceX and Boeing were selected to develop the necessary technologies to transport astronauts to the ISS. Since then over $8.2 billion in Space Act Agreements and contracts have been awardedas part of the initiative. Many other companies like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are also a part of the program. Yet the focus is largely on Boeing and SpaceX. This is partially due to their success in being awarded contracts following a September 2014 competition. They resulted in billions being contributed to each company.
While the SpaceX launch steals the headlines, Boeing has decided to fly a second uncrewed flight to test the CST-100 Starliner system. Following a flawed first flight in December of last year, the company decided to re-attempt it before proceeding.
NASA’s reasoning behind selecting two companies to complete the same objective was to achieve “dissimilar redundancy”. This allowed the focus to be on “crew safety rather than schedule”.
Why was the Space Shuttle Program cancelled?
In 2004, it was announced that the space shuttles would be retired. The program had been running since 1981 with the successful Columbia expedition. The final flight concluded in 2011 when the Atlantis touched down in July.
One of the primary reasons behind the program’s end was funding. The purpose behind the Space Shuttle program was to construct the ISS. Afterwards, the funding for the program would be moved onto the next project. At the time, this was a plan named Constellation.
Additionally, there is the issue of limited expertise. Back then, the number of people qualified to operate and contribute to space flight operations was small. For the most part, they were already employed by NASA. To work on new technologies, resources would need to be re-routed.
The Constellation project was cancelled with the election of a new administration. The Commercial Crew Program was created due to emphasis placed on commercial space flights.
How has the pandemic impacted the space launch?
The May launch is going ahead as planned. “We are asking people to join us in this launch but to do so from home. We’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center,” said Bridenstine.
This launch is of historic importance and it is anticipated that there will be a larger than average turnout. However, the centre will be closed to the public due to the pandemic. This means that the typical viewing spots will be unavailable. This move is one of many NASA is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
NASA is also combating the pandemic by having all, but mission-critical personnel, working from home. The current situation has resulted in some delays. Yet the May Demo-2 launch and the Mars Perseverance rover launch in July are going ahead.
NASA has also diverted resources to help with the current crisis. NASA has made new technologies to help patients, such as ventilators. Additionally, CPAP hoods to help patients not yet needing ventilators have recently been created. They are awaiting emergency FDA approval for their use on patients.
What does this mean for the future of human spaceflight?
In 2014, the Obama administrationindicated that the ISS would receive support until at least 2024. The ISS is now expected to cease operation in 2024 or 2025, following the US administration’s lack of funding request for 2025.
However, this is far from the end of space exploration. NASA has a plan to return to the moon in 2024 following the current administration’s Space Policy Directive-1. Part of this plan includes the Gateway Lunar Command Module.
Though initial missions might bypass it, the Gateway would provide a way to extend the duration of lunar missions, as it helps to alleviate the issue of supplies being limited by what can fit on the spacecraft. Predominantly, the Gateway would serve as a staging point for longer-term missions, both on the moon and beyond.
The ISS will continue serving as a base for research and development to aid in future exploration and commercial growth.
The upcoming May flight is a historic occasion. It shows how collaboration with commercial industry can help to propel space exploration to the next level.