Tonight, when it will be 22:33 in Italy, together with the Falcon 9 rocket that will leave Cape Canaveral with the Dragon-2 spacecraft on top there will be several things at stake: the United States’ ambitions to relaunch its hegemonic power, the challenge of an eccentric billionaire, a possible exciting story to relieve us of the anxiety of the pandemic and hope for a new era of space travel, in which private companies transport humans to low Earth orbit and beyond.
The mission, for which NASA launched the hashtag #LaunchAmerica, will feature Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which designed both aircraft. It will be the first manned flight of a shuttle designed and managed by a private company through a partnership with the public. On board the spacecraft there will be two US pilots. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who will be transported to the International Space Station. SpaceX regularly ships to the ISS, but this will be the first time – after six years of development and testing – with men in the flesh. Yet another milestone: the first launch of this type from the United States after the Shuttle retired in July 2011.
Provided everything is going well, of course. The consequences of a failure would be equally historic, both for NASA and for his contractor – a startup founded by Musk 18 years ago that had to beat Boeing’s fierce competition to get this prestigious order worth 3.1 billion dollars. In the meantime he received another 4.8 billion dollars from NASA to continue developing his spacecraft; there is no monogamy in the project, and NASA could choose another carrier when it suits them best.
Because the ambitions of the American space agency go far beyond today: first of all, NASA wants to demonstrate that the business model works even for the most risky missions, and to give new life to the idea of a return of Man to the Moon or even a lunar station. Making so happy President Donald Trump, who would like to set foot on the satellite by 2024. Secondly, there is the intention to break the dependence on Russian rockets and spacecraft such as the Soyuz, which have been entrusted with all the launches with NASA crew after Space Shuttle retires. So there is also the geopolitics of the new Cold War in this story, and both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will participate in the event.
As for Elon Musk, this is a first step to go well beyond the space station: by 2023 a trip around the Moon is scheduled, and in 2026 another one around Mars (if not even on Mars). SpaceX is confident that there is a market of millionaires who could become Dragon’s regular customers in the near future, and the company has already sold four seats to passengers who will be touring around Earth next year. There is also a plan to send customers to a space station called Axiom, developed by a commercial company. And several rumors speak of an ambitious project, for now still on paper, which involves NASA, SpaceX and Tom Cruise for the realization of the first film in orbit.
So if some aspects of today’s launch seem classic, the role of SpaceX is an element of important novelty compared to the ways in which NASA historically sent its astronauts to space: the Commercial Crew program consists in the fact that the space agency will pay the ticket to board vehicles built and managed by private individuals, agreeing to play the part of the customer of a sort of “space Uber” managed by Musk or other private entrepreneurs. We are talking about a world on which other tycoons such as Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) or Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) are in the meantime, who want their part as protagonists in the science fiction adventure.
For the moment, however, NASA’s fortunes are mainly linked to those of Musk, a controversial and unpredictable character, a father for the sixth time that has conquered the pages of newspapers in recent weeks defining the mandatory quarantine for the coronavirus as “fascist” and reopened Tesla facilities in California going against local health authorities. One that combines formidable insights and messes: if SpaceX has already shattered the aerospace sector with its “reusable” rocket-based cost-cutting strategy, one of its passenger capsules exploded in flight during a test in April of the year last, and in another test a parachute decided not to open. Fortunately, nobody was on board.
The Commercial Crew program, with which NASA is effectively outsourcing its traditional services, will cost between 20 and 30 billion dollars less than the Constellation program, wanted and then abandoned by the Obama administration more than ten years ago. But the choice to use Silicon Valley know-how will have a significant symbolic cost. Six contractor private individuals have always built spacecraft for NASA, the difference now lies in the ownership of the spacecraft, in the SpaceX logo that dominates that of NASA, and in the fact that they will be Musk employees to give the Ok for the departure. The tender was managed by public institutions, but the advertising will be of the startup.
Project supporters, however, see the launch of SpaceX as a step forward to open up space to nations that otherwise would not be able to afford it. Those who do not have the means to produce their own spacecraft and rockets will be able to pay for a trip with Musk’s company or with future Boeing carriers, bypassing NASA entirely (even if for now no one has come forward). Not to mention that SpaceX points to a universe of commuters made by researchers, engineers and scientists who will be able to move back and forth between Earth and future space stations.
Commercial Crew could also represent a turning point in terms of space tourism, even if for a long time only the ultra-rich will be able to afford a trip to the ISS or a stop in future space stations. However, according to some experts, the segment’s trajectory could follow that of land-based airlines, with a progressive democratization due to the economies of scale that cut the costs for the single ticket.
But this would mean removing the generous sums that Russia pays to send its crew to space: about $ 86 million per astronaut, exploiting the base in Kazakhstan. If, thanks to SpaceX and Boeing, NASA should gain greater logistical autonomy, and start rockets from Florida again, the technological collaboration between two countries already affected by a relationship that is nothing short of complicated could thin out, and the tensions already present with Moscow could worsen . According to Teasel Muir-Harmony, a National Air and Space Museum historian interviewed by Politic, many people associate the end of the Shuttle program with the sunset of NASA tout-court: in terms of popular perception, another piece of the star and striped decline.
Today’s flight could and would like to be, in short, another chapter of the attempt to overturn this story, and to orchestrate American deglobalization under the banner ofAmerica first, and the Trumpian rethinking of value chains. By restoring America’s ability to get its astronauts off the ground, the SpaceX mission could offer an opportunity for these horizons of glory, as well as a moment of national cohesion for a country that has spent months isolated and divided in an unprecedented health crisis. However, the merit will be taken by the private initiative, even if the state will put the money there.