Can NASA and Elon Musk lift off?
Wednesday’s historic launch from Cape Canaveral would make Musk’s, NASA SpaceX the first private company to carry people into orbit and open a new era for America’s space program. If it works
A lot will be riding on the 230-foot rocket that lifts off this week from Cape Canaveral: The lives of two NASA astronauts. The United States’ ambitions to reclaim its independence as a spacefaring nation. And hopes for a reimagined era of space travel in which private companies ferry humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond.
The consequences of failure would be equally historic for both NASA and its contractor SpaceX, the 18-year-old startup founded by the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
SpaceX beat the competition to the finish line for Wednesday’s 4:33 p.m. liftoff ahead of more-established rivals like Boeing and for the chance to become the first private business to fly humans into orbit. The mission would also be the first to launch astronauts from U.S. soil since the shuttle Atlantis took its final flight in 2011, triggering nine years of America’s total reliance on Russian spacecraft.
For now, NASA’s fortunes are tied to Musk’s, who has made headlines recently for antics like vowing to sell all his houses, denouncing coronavirus lockdowns as “fascist” and reopening Tesla’s electric-car factory in defiance of California health authorities.
But NASA has big ambitions beyond Wednesday, viewing this launch as a first step to working with commercial providers on ventures like private space stations or human travel to the lunar surface. Such partnerships with industry are a crucial way the agency, which is hustling to meet President Donald Trump’s demands for a moon landing in 2024, plans to stretch its dollars in the decades ahead.
Now it just needs Wednesday’s launch to prove that the commercial model can succeed for the riskiest missions, such as transporting people.
“We’re on the cusp of proving it,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both plan to attend the historic event. On Thursday, the president invited reporters at the White House to come as well, adding: “I’d like to put you on the rocket and get rid of you for a while.”
Some aspects of Wednesday’s launch might seem routine: It would be NASA’s 61st expedition to the International Space Station. The astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, are veteran spacefarers who have spent a combined 57 days in space and served as test pilots in the Marine Corps and Air Force, respectively.
But SpaceX’s role is a major departure from the traditional way NASA has sent its astronauts into space during the decades when it funded, owned and operated its own rockets and shuttles. This time, under its Commercial Crew program, both the agency and the industry will fund the privately owned spacecraft, and NASA will buy rides aboard vehicles that also moonlight as transports-for-hire for a growing space economy.Wednesday’s mission is also a potential milestone in making space more accessible to scientists, tourists or even Tom Cruise, who recently said he wants to film a movie aboard the International Space Station. And it comes as other private businesses aim to take humans to the final frontier, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
“Commercial Crew is the first step,” said Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut who is now a professor at the University of Southern California and a consultant for SpaceX. “A lot of the individuals doing this, like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, are looking to fulfill the promises of science fiction. … What’s happening now is the beginning of a path towards that.”
But those hopes carry inherent risks.
SpaceX has already disrupted the industry, with its cost-cutting strategy of employing reusable rockets to launch satellites and cargo to the International Space Station. But the company has faced troubles getting to its first flight with humans onboard. One of the crew capsules exploded during a test in April 2019, grounding the vehicle for months during an investigation into the accident.
The parachutes that will slow the capsule as it returns to Earth also failed in a May 2019 test. Neither test had humans on board.
Another curveball is Musk, who has rankled some government officials with actions such as smoking marijuana on a 2018 video podcast a big no-no for a government contractor with a security clearance that prompted NASA to conduct an investigation into SpaceX’s safety culture and daring authorities to arrest him when he reopened Tesla’s plant near San Francisco.