It’s been nearly 10 years since NASA stopped launching Americans into space. We’ve been hitching rides to the space station with the Russians — a huge comedown from the glory days of NASA.
A combination of factors, including costly delays in designing and creating a new manned system to take us into space and a lack of funding from Congress contributed to the long dry spell in launching our own astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil.
And then along came Elon Musk and Space X. The billionaire thinks there’s money to be made in developing a private manned launch capability and it looks like he’ll finally get his wish.
On May 27, if there are no further delays, two U.S. astronauts will blast off in a Dragon crew capsule sitting atop a reusable Falcon 9 Space X rocket for a journey to the International Space Station. It will be the first manned mission of a privately designed, privately built launch system in history.
BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil! With our @SpaceX partners, @Astro_Doug and @AstroBehnken will launch to the @Space_Station on the #CrewDragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Let's #LaunchAmerica 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/RINb3mfRWI
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) April 17, 2020
Former President Barack Obama formally ended NASA’s manned-flight programs in 2011, after the Atlantis Space Shuttle completed its final mission.
“I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars,” he stated at the time. “I know they are up to the challenge – and I plan to be around to see it.”
He may be around to see it, but Obama did nothing during the next four years to make it a reality. The Orion program, the next-generation manned spacecraft for NASA, is hopelessly behind schedule. It was supposed to allow NASA to go back to the moon this year, but design flaws and delays in construction have pushed that date back indefinitely.
Donald Trump is also looking past Earth’s orbit to the moon and Mars.
President Donald Trump expanded on Obama’s hopes for landing astronauts on Mars and has frequently spoken on the subject in campaign rallies and even his State of the Union addresses.
“Space is the world’s new war-fighting domain,” Trump said of Space Force. “Among grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital. And we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough, and very shortly we’ll be leading by a lot.”
The launch of the Dragon puts us right back in the ballgame. Since the Falcon 9 is reusable, it’s hoped that costs per pound can be cut substantially, making space flight cheaper and more reliable.
We are entering a new golden age of spaceflight as private companies begin to take over much of NASA’s launch responsibilities, leaving them to concentrate on scientific missions — something they have excelled at, especially over the last two decades. I’d be willing to bet that a private company will make it back to the moon before NASA, and probably to Mars as well.