How important is the SpaceX and NASA's collaborative May launch and does the Trump administration really have the ability to claim credit for it?

With the US Administration heralding the May SpaceX and NASA launch as ‘momentous’ in the face of widespread protests over rampant police brutality, what does the US really care about?

How important is the collaborative May launch in space and does the Trump administration really have the ability to claim credit for it?

Unjust death and incredible achievement in the same week

On Saturday, the 30th of May 2020, the first crewed shuttle left the US soil since 2011. SpaceX collaborated with NASA becoming the first private business to successfully launch a shuttle into space. This was not the only world-changing event to occur that week, with George Floyd being killed as a result of police brutality on the 25th.

Jim Bridenstine, the NASA Administrator acknowledged: “If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation might have been a little high.”

This sentiment was not shared by President Trump. He gave a “campaign-style rally” hailing the “spirit of American determination”. Later, he took credit for the launch despite its origins in the previous two administrations.

The speech referenced Floyd’s murder and the following protests nationwide. Yet it quickly turned to a long-winded claim of complete responsibility for the launch. A poor attempt at diverting attention from the nationwide outcry against systemic racism in the United States.

The Launch

The launch itself, regardless of the politics behind it, went smoothly despite initial hiccups. The original launch window on May 27th was scrubbed just under 20 minutes before launch. This was due to unprecedented weather conditions. Bridenstine said: “There was a concern that if we did launch it could trigger lightning.” The launch was rescheduled for the 30th.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off at 3:22 PM ET. They became the first people to fly on a crewed commercial spaceflight. The travel time to the International Space Station (ISS) takes around 19 hours. The SpaceX Dragon docked at 10:16 AM ET, 15 minutes early. The astronauts will remain aboard the ISS anywhere between six weeks to four months. This depends on the state of the Dragon spacecraft after prolonged exposure to open space.

NASA’s reliance on outside entities

NASA has previously contracted a third party to carry astronauts to the ISS. The last launch to the ISS on the Space Shuttle was in 2009, with the STS-129 undocking from the ISS on November 25th. To reach the ISS during a time when there were no domestic launches, NASA relied on Roscosmos (previously known as Russian Federal Space Agency). According to CNBC, the cost to send an astronaut to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket was $86 million. It is anticipated that flying on SpaceX’s dragon will cost $55 million, a $31 million decrease.

It seems that NASA’s reliance shifts from Roscosmos to SpaceX for ISS flights. Yet this does not mean NASA is contracting everything to third parties.

The Artemis Program

NASA’s upcoming initiative, ‘The Artemis Program’, seeks to return to the moon. Both the rocket and capsule for the Artemis I mission are NASA developed. The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule are to be used to travel 280,000 miles from Earth, past the Moon. The aim in this is to “provide a foundation for human deep space exploration” according to NASA’s website.

However, SpaceX is still involved in the Artemis Program. In May, NASA selected SpaceX to create “a lunar optimized Starship to transport crew between lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon”. This follows NASA’s announcement that SpaceX’s starship was eligible for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The purpose behind which is to deliver supplies and payloads from the Earth to the Moon.

The launch’s true significance lies in the partnership forged between NASA and SpaceX. The development of this relationship will have vast impacts on the future of space exploration.

The division of success

Who can claim responsibility for this success? Certainly not the current US Administration.

According to the New York Times, the Commercial Crew Program began under President Obama in 2011. It is what made May’s launch possible. Due to opposition from Congress, NASA did not receive the intended funding. The NASA administrator at the time, Charles F. Bolden Jr., worked to advance the program nonetheless. NASA’s current administrator Bridenstine acknowledged that the launch wouldn’t have been possible without the Obama Administration. Especially without their efforts to create the program.

The program’s origins came from the end of the Space Shuttle Program. It was a decision made by the Bush Administration which only came to fruition in the following presidency. As a way to supplement this, the Commercial Crew Program was developed. The funding awarded by NASA that ultimately allowed SpaceX to develop the Dragon spacecraft.

The Commercial Crew Development Round 2 gave funding to four companies. It further collaborated with three more to “aid in further development and demonstration of safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation capabilities”.

Due to this, NASA developed systems which aided in May’s launch. Therefore, the only laurels the current administration can rest on is that the program wasn’t completely cancelled.

Progress in space and protests on Earth

The Trump administration can only claim credit for their failure to prevent the 117 thousand deaths from COVID-19. The number of cases is still doubling every month. Yet the administrations focus lies on calling for the use of the military against the American people.

Social programs that would have helped aid in response to the widespread pandemic have seen a sharp decrease in funding. In 2010, California’s annual allocation for health related crises was $81 million. In 2019 it was $65 million. Compared with this, a 12% increase to NASA’s budget has been solidified. The $25.2 billion can be viewed as a testament to the administration’s priorities. Health crisis response funding isn’t the only social program that has suffered. The 2021 budget also proposes cutting $292 billion from social programs. This will heavily impact Medicaid and food stamps, with those already suffering below the poverty line suffering most.

Moreover, the protests were glossed over in Trump’s address at May’s launch. He disregarded the death of George Floyd. He said that “the main victims of this horrible, horrible situations are the citizens who live in these once lovely communities”. In 2020 alone, 425 Americans have been unjustly killed by police. This means that someone is killed by police every 10 hours.

Racism in space?

According to Vanity Fair, a study conducted at University of California found that Black citizens are more likely to die of police brutality than any other demographic. “The probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average,” the source states.

In 2020 in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the “police use force against Black people at 7 times the rate of Whites”. In the past five years about 61% unconscious neck restraints, where an officer is intentionally trying to render someone unconscious, were used on black people. This method of restraint is not officially approved by any legal body.

This begs the question: if there is such a clear lack of equality on the ground, how bad will it be in space?
The precedent set by the early space program does not bode well. It wasn’t until 1983 that an African American made it into space, 14 years after the moon landing. Ed Dwight was prepared to be the first in 1963 but was not chosen out of the 271 applicants. Despite being highly qualified, NASA still hasn’t explained their reasons behind omitting him.

What’s next?

May’s launch was historic and marked a new beginning of human exploration in space. However, that was far from the only momentous thing happening. The pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement are leading the drive for reforms and systematic change.

The administration’s efforts to hide public unrest and social issues behind exciting events like the launch failed to manifest as planned. In the case of Black Lives Matter, even when the movement falls from the headlines, the issue of institutionalised racism persists. Racism is the foundation of modern America and it will persist until addressed properly.

Things are changing, both on the ground and in space. The future is still up in the air, and much of it depends on the involvement of the public, and a refusal to be complacent.

Humans inhabiting the moon is an exciting prospect, but only once those on Earth are no longer at risk.

Alexandra Clay
BSc Computer Science

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