On May 27, 2020, astronauts are scheduled to launch from US soil again for the first time since 2011. Over the past 9 years, astronauts have only been able to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) by launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Tomorrow, SpaceX will reinvigorate the American crewed spaceflight industry. It will also become the first private company to send humans to space, launching space travel into a new era along the way.
I could use this post as a platform to tell you about the mission, the technology, the astronauts, SpaceX, or why the experts think it’s important. But trust me, there are plenty of articles available for you to read online if you’re interested. Instead, what I wanted to share was my personal experience as to why I think this is a critical milestone we should all care about.
Inspiring the Next Generation
I grew up watching the Space Shuttles launch on my family’s TV, and once when I was four years old, from the top of a parking deck in St. Petersburg, FL. I remember watching the trail of the Endeavor Space Shuttle curve up toward space like it was yesterday. I also vividly remember looking up at my parents and saying, “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.” I was four. It was THAT impactful.
Though I never had the chance to watch a Space Shuttle launch from the bleachers at Kennedy Space Center, the Space Shuttle program shaped my life more than I would ever know as a young girl. It was a pivotal moment that sparked my interest in space travel, and without that, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. The Shuttles were my generation’s inspiring space endeavors. Just like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions in the 1960s, the Shuttle program instilled awe in all children who watched them. It’s giant technological steps forward like these that inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, and educators.
The American space industry has been severely lacking this past decade, and it’s time we finally launch astronauts from Cape Canaveral again. The young minds eager to create, innovate, and make the world a better place need this. They need something so impactful and awe-inspiring that it makes them jump up from their couch and learn how to code, 3D print, or tinker with their electronics again. Even if they don’t want to work in the space industry when they grow up, they will be better equipped to change the world if we expose them at a young age to the incredible advancements that come out of big dreams and hard work.
Privatizing the Space Industry
The political nature of NASA’s position forces them to follow more rules than the private sector while being more considerate of taxpayer money. As a result, NASA’s innovation and forward progress often follow different timelines than their private sector counterparts because their focus shifts depending on current political winds.
As an engineer on the Orion program, I experienced the political challenges NASA faces first-hand. Though the engineers on the program are quick to respond to changing direction, the swift political changes and public eye on the program’s expenditures often lengthen launch timelines. This, in turn, can have the unfortunate effect of diminishing the public’s excitement for human spaceflight and exploration.
An example of changing political winds having an effect on a human spaceflight program can be seen in the Constellation program. In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed a plan, Constellation, for continued crewed exploration of outer space after the completion of the ISS and the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. Constellation was intended to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon with the help of its Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander. Work began on the program in 2005, but was hastily stopped in 2011 when the Obama administration said the program was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking innovation.” Instead, Obama directed that Orion be built as an auxiliary component to the ISS, and the rockets being built for the Constellation program be replaced by a new heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS). A complete derailment to the original sustainable Moon presence goal, NASA was practically back at square one seven years later with no lunar lander in development nor any feasible way to travel efficiently and cost-effectively back and forth to the Moon. The program’s cost, multiple Presidential administrations’ goals, and the public’s view all play a factor in how quickly NASA is able to innovate and launch new missions.
In contrast, SpaceX has been able to go from a startup rocket company to a leading stakeholder in the space industry in under 20 years. For reference, SpaceX was two-years-old when President Bush proposed the Constellation program. SpaceX is now leading the way for reusable rockets, decreasing the price tag of rocket launches, and preparing to send humans to space. Their ability to rapidly innovate complex designs has radically changed the direction of spaceflight. SpaceX was awarded the NASA contract for a commercial crew vehicle in 2014, the same year Orion had its most recent test flight. In just six years, they have developed a crew vehicle from the ground up and proven its readiness through various test flights. They have shown that decoupling politics from technological advancement is critical for a rapid progression of space exploration in the near future.
What’s Next for Human Exploration?
If all goes well tomorrow with SpaceX’s first private crewed mission to space, I believe we will see a surge in demand for privatized space. Many commercial companies are already developing small rockets to launch small satellites (CubeSats) into orbit around Earth for a fraction of the current launch provider cost. Extending this diminished cost to human spaceflight will allow more people the opportunity to travel to space at a faster rate. We will be able to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon, which will then set the stage for a trip to Mars. The technology is quickly approaching an acceptable readiness level, and it’s this push to launch from American soil again atop a private company’s rocket that will propel us to the next era in spaceflight.
How to Watch the Launch
The launch is scheduled for May 27 at 4:33 PM EST. You can watch the launch on Discovery, The Science Channel, or National Geographic. You can also stream it on SpaceX’s website or YouTube channel, as well as NASA TV.