SpaceX Chases History With Launch While Bigger Hurdles Loom
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is angling to become the first U.S. company to join an elite club of government space powers with the know-how and wealth to blast humans into orbit.
While that’s uncharted territory, what comes next will be far more difficult. Musk is trying to turn such voyages into a sustainable business that supports a thriving space colony hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface and, ultimately, bankrolls forays to the moon and Mars.
SpaceX’s first flight with humans aboard is spurring the competitive space industry to new heights, with Boeing Co. also preparing to carry people to orbit as part of the same NASA program. Musk, meanwhile, has inspired plans for reusable rockets from traditional launch powerhouses and new entrants like Blue Origin, backed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos. There’s also a race to develop smaller launch vehicles, even as economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic threatens funding.
“We’re standing at the threshold of all of this commercial activity in space,” said Wayne Hale, who led the space shuttle program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and helped develop the agency’s strategy to spur private-sector flight. “One of the whole points of this exercise is to build a commercial business that can go on and do things in space that are not funded by the taxpayer, that actually create wealth and jobs.”
Or as Musk put it: “Open your eyes, look up to the skies.” He posted the tweet quoting Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” lyrics on May 22, hours after NASA cleared Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for the groundbreaking mission known as Demo-2.
The historic launch is slated for 4:33 p.m. in Florida, weather permitting. If all goes to plan, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will lift off from Cape Canaveral, bound for the International Space Station in a Dragon capsule attached to a Falcon 9 rocket until separation roughly 12 minutes after launch.
It’s the first such journey in a commercially developed spacecraft, and would end the nation’s nine-year dependence on Russia’s Soyuz craft to send astronauts to the orbiting lab. For SpaceX, it’s a milestone that was 18 years in the making, undertaken against formidable odds and much skepticism, even from the Apollo legends who spurred Musk’s imagination as a child. And it’s just the first step.
The drive to commercialize human spaceflight has progressed in fits and starts since the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid his own way to the ISS aboard a Russian spacecraft in 2001. A decade ago, then-President Barack Obama shocked the space community by canceling the shuttle program and handing responsibility for missions in low Earth orbit to private enterprise through contracts awarded by NASA.
“We are trying to create a robust commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview on Bloomberg TV Wednesday. “We need SpaceX to go get customers that are not NASA.”
But it’s too early to know whether Wednesday’s flight represents the dawn of a new era, or the pinnacle of privatization. Underscoring the difficulty of the challenge, SpaceX is about three years behind NASA’s original schedule. Boeing’s Starliner capsule is running months behind SpaceX after missing a rendezvous with the space station during an unmanned test flight in December.
“Allowing private citizens to experience the wonder of spaceflight is part of our future plans for Starliner,” Boeing said in a statement.
“Through partnerships with NASA and Space Adventures we’ll offer trips to low Earth orbit destinations for scientists, researchers, educators, and astronauts from other countries, as well as tourists,” the company said. Space Adventures is a Virginia company marketing rides on the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft.
SpaceX’s milestone is occurring against a backdrop of global recession and soaring budget deficits from the Covid-19 pandemic that could disrupt government funding and discourage investment in upstarts. With NASA’s budgets subject to the whims of politics, President Donald Trump’s lunar ambitions could go the way of George W. Bush’s Constellation program, which was scrapped by his successor.
“The next couple of years we’ll have a hard enough time figuring out how to get people on an airplane with coronavirus, much less in a capsule,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson. “The visionaries are out there and that’s a great thing. But it’s a small, small percentage of the population that’s getting anywhere near space. I don’t see anyone getting ready to mine the moon.”
As with earlier attempts to revolutionize human spaceflight, Musk and others face the challenge of driving down the risks and exorbitant costs of travel powered by a controlled explosion.
The U.S. space shuttle program was designed a half century ago to make journeys to low Earth orbit in a reusable spacecraft seem routine. But the program never flew frequently enough to live up to that promise, and its legacy was marred by two catastrophic failures.
Until the costs to orbit tumble, such trips will remain the domain of governments, corporations and wealthy adventurers. NASA’s inspector general, in a November 2019 study, estimated that the average cost per seat in SpaceX’s capsule is $55 million, while berths in Boeing’s Starliner run $90 million.
The actual prices for space tourists are probably lower, and poised to tumble as the private contractors get in a tempo of regular missions, forcing Russia to discount its $90 million per-seat charge, predicts space consultant Jim Muncy. “As we fly more people to the space station, the cost will be distributed to more users.”
SpaceX already has disrupted the commercial launch market, which it has led since 2017, according to data compiled by Bryce Space and Technology, an analysis and consulting firm.
Prices should plunge as a new generation of rockets is rolled out by Blue Origin, the Bezos venture, as well as by Northrop Grumman Corp. and United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture that has dominated military launches for about 15 years.
The competition is even fiercer among small launch vehicles, with more than 100 systems fighting to gain a foothold, according to Bryce. Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, which unsuccessfully launched a missile from a Boeing 747 jetliner May 25, is vying with the likes of Rocket Lab, Northrop, Relativity Space and Firefly Aerospace.
“The market is big enough to support perhaps two such providers, but not much more than that,” said Phil Smith, senior space analyst and artist with Alexandria, Virginia-based Bryce. “Indeed, the pandemic will likely accelerate the demise of most.”
Established players like SpaceX, valued at $36 billion, are poised to weather the storm and to make the most of any opportunities the outbreak may create for the space industry, Smith said via email. He sees human spaceflight as a tiny sliver — worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year — out of the $360 billion space economy that’s largely dominated by satellite services. SpaceX is targeting the more profitable realm with its Starlink broadband constellation.
The company’s success is a product of the “absurdly ambitious goals” that inspire its engineers, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in an address at Northwestern University last year.
“The work we’re doing and others as well will completely change how we think about our world, our solar system and, candidly, life on earth,” she said. “We are all about space transportation systems. Design them, launch them, make money off them.”
As to the naysayers: “First of all, we’ve proven these jerks wrong time and time again,” she told an audience of engineering students at her alma mater. “Screw ‘em.”
— With assistance by Dana Hull
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