|SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 (centre) docked at the International Space Station, July 2, 2020 (NASA)|
Even without factoring in the pandemic and political developments, 2020 also promises to stand out in the history of space exploration because of the launch on May 30 of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 spacecraft and its two astronauts from the Kennedy Space Center.
The headline on launch day was that Dragon's launch marked the end of nearly nine years since U.S. astronauts were last launched on an U.S. rocket from the territory of the United States, a drought that went back to the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. If the work behind the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the NASA Commercial Crew program is met with a full measure of success, this flight will be remembered as something much bigger, a major step forward in making space accessible to humans.
As this blog entry was published, the Crew Dragon spacecraft remains docked to the International Space Station, which means that its historic mission is not yet complete. Waiting in the wings is the Boeing Starliner spacecraft, which must successfully fly one more robotic test flight before astronauts can climb on board.
That means it’s still too soon to celebrate the Dragon mission. The Crew of Demo-2 must get home, and then further flights lie ahead to verify confidence in Dragon and prove the Boeing Starliner. Both spacecraft have met setbacks, and Dragon has overcome them, while Starliner must fly once more without a crew due to the mixed results of its most recent test flight.
Success for both Dragon and Starliner will mean that Americans will have more than one option to fly into space from U.S. territory. Success will bring an end to the situation where U.S. access to space is dependent on a single type of spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle, which was often grounded during its 30-year flight history.
Dragon and Starliner are the first of a whole new generation of spacecraft that won’t belong to a government but to private firms. The hope is that soon SpaceX, Boeing and other companies will fly their own missions without reference to NASA, and their spacecraft will be available for other organizations and individuals that have the means. Other firms such as Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation are working to make their own spacecraft available as well.
Success in the Commercial Crew program should mean that access to space for U.S. citizens or anyone else from friendly countries will no longer be dependent on the ability and willingness of U.S. taxpayers to support space travel when there are so many other calls on government resources. Future space travelers should have something they really haven’t had before – a choice of spacecraft.
The launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on board Dragon Demo-2 represents an important step in opening up access to space. If Demo-2 returns home safely and is followed by more successful flights, there will be many more spaceflight possibilities for people who aren’t professional astronauts, including people from outside the U.S. Fewer than 600 people have flown in space over the nearly 60 years since Yuri Gagarin blazed the trail. Perhaps very soon the ranks of space explorers can begin to increase in a dramatic fashion.
The successful Demo-2 launch was a badly needed piece of good news in a very trying year. More work needs to be done in the Commercial Crew program, and if it is crowned with success, those of us who want to see space opened up will have something to celebrate that transcends national pride.