Following a delayed first attempt, SpaceX through partnership with NASA has successfully launched the Crew Dragon module on 30 May 2020 at 8:22pm GMT. This launch marks a historic milestone in space exploration. Not only is it the first time the United States has launched a crewed mission from Kennedy Space Center in Florida since NASA’s discontinuation of its space shuttle fleet in 2011, but it is the first time any crew has been launched into orbit through partnership with a private company. Through its mission of developing a newer and more powerful generation of spacecraft capable of taking humans to Mars and beyond, SpaceX has marked the spot through pioneering the future of both the human and commercial industries of spaceflight.
(Figure 1): NASA / SpaceX launch on 30 May 2020. Source: Flickr.com/photos/spacex.
Founded in 2002 as the brainchild of tech entrepreneur and billionaire, Elon Musk, SpaceX has achieved great success in a relatively short period of time. The company has successfully launched satellites into orbit, pioneered research into commercial spaceflight, and developed unique and reusable rocket launch systems. These reusable systems, such as the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule which both featured in Saturday’s historic launch, have garnered SpaceX with international acclaim and has rebranded the affordability and renewed interest in sustainable space travel.
Unlike most uncrewed spacecraft that are designed to burn up upon reentry to the atmosphere, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is specifically designed to withstand the intensity of reentry procedures. Its unique design allows it to land safely back on Earth and, after careful diagnostics and testing, be reused for repeat spaceflights. This ability of landing and reuse, the sequence of which is documented in the diagram of Figure 2, is achieved through the innovative use of retractable legs, automated guidance systems, and ‘boostback burn’ (i.e. the firing of the main engines to slow the rocket’s descent).
(Figure 2): Diagram of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket reentry and landing sequence. Source: SpaceX
Similarly, the Dragon capsule allows for increased repeat travel from Earth into orbit and beyond. It is currently the only commercial spacecraft in operation that is capable of transporting cargo and crew – as seen on Saturday’s launch with astronauts Bob Behnkin and Doug Hurley – to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and potentially taking future astronauts and eventually private citizens to the Moon and ultimately to Mars. The ability to reuse the more expensive components necessary for spaceflight drastically cuts down on the costs of space travel – the development of the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rockets allegedly saving NASA upwards of $30bn compared to other spacecraft like the Ares I and Orion vehicles. Reusing such materials has paved the way for space travel – including Lunar and Mars missions – to be much more affordable. SpaceX has likened its reusable technology as similar to that of commercial airlines:
“Each new plane [of commercial airlines] costs about the same as Falcon 9 but can fly multiple times per day and conduct tens of thousands of flights over its lifetime. [Similarly] a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of traveling to space by a hundredfold.”
The partnership between SpaceX and NASA for Saturday’s launch is only the beginning for naming SpaceX as a leading player in the space industry. True to its mission of “making humanity multiplanetary”, SpaceX has been selected as one of the three companies – alongside Blue Orion and Dynetics – to develop human landers as part of the upcoming NASA Artemis Lunar program to again put humans on the surface of the Moon. These missions are set to begin in 2024 and will mark the first time humans have returned to the Moon since 1972, featuring yet another impressive milestone for SpaceX. The Artemis Lunar program, through the benefit of 21st century technology, will allow for greater and more in-depth exploration of the Lunar surface.
To aid in this regard, SpaceX aims to develop their Starship (Figure 3): a “fully reusable launch and landing system”, according to NASA, which will be based in design on the highly successful Falcon and Dragon vehicles. The craft is reportedly being designed to be able to transport both cargo and crew between Earth and the Lunar surface regularly with the eventual aim of establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon. The reusable nature of these crafts, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, “will enable us to go to the Moon, this time sustainably. In other words, we’re going to go to the Moon to stay.”
(Figure 3): An artist concept of the SpaceX Starship in the surface of the Moon. Source: SpaceX
In addition to being the first private company to transport astronauts to the ISS for NASA, SpaceX has taken a great step forward toward the commercialization of space travel, that is, the eventual carrying of private passengers into Earth’s orbit, the ISS and beyond. While the costs of spaceflight are extremely high, with company contracts ranging in the billions of dollars, the innovative and unique reusable designs of SpaceX vehicles seems to have achieved a solution that will make the costs of spaceflight much more affordable.
Jim Bridenstine commented the United States space agency saying he “envision[s] a future where low-Earth orbit is entirely commercialised,” seeing NASA as one of many customers “where…numerous providers are competing on cost, on innovation and safety.”
(Figure 4): SpaceX Dragon module, the inspiration for the SpaceX Starship. Source: SpaceX
To achieve this end, SpaceX has already announced their plans to shuttle private citizens into Earth’s orbit beginning as early as 2021. They have partnered with Space Adventures, a private space tourism company to launch up to four passengers in a craft similar to the Dragon capsule (Figure 4) in order to make “spaceflight possible for all people who dream of it”, as stated by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. The current Dragon capsule currently seats seven, though it has been documented that no more than four seats would be occupied by NASA astronauts leaving the others potentially open for the beginnings of commercial spaceflight.
Though commercial spaceflight as seen in science-fiction and popular culture is not yet obtainable, let alone affordable commercial spaceflight, the successful launch of the Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday has forever changed the spaceflight industry. It has revitalized the people’s interest in exploring beyond the Earth and has been the first time a private company has engaged in such an endeavour. With the reusable element to SpaceX’s well deserved success, the spaceflight industry is well on its way to achieving the very mission SpaceX has embodied, whether through corporate or commercial means, to make humanity multiplanetary.
– Evan Cook