Tesla CEO Elon Musk has always dreamt big. While many of his claims have sometimes amounted to nothing, his perseverance over the years has been commendable. Now, one of his many grand dreams – commercial space travel – is taking its first steps.
Here’s what happened: This past Saturday, SpaceX, Musk’s firm which he’s pinned all his hopes and dreams for space travel on, launched two NASA astronauts – Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley – from Cape Canevral, Florida to the International Space Station (ISS). A SpaceX-designed Crew Dragon capsule/spacecraft and a Falcon 9 rocket were used to facilitate the launch, a breakthrough in and of itself for the aspiring space company.
“Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations,” NASA explained. “This is SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard, which will pave the way for its certification for regular crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.”
Here’s why this matters: For one, the success of this launch represents the first time a first privately owned spacecraft was used to launch astronauts into space, which is the success Musk needed to renew interest in SpaceX and the rest of his offworld aspirations. Potentially, this could also stimulate investor interest for Musk’s grander projects.
Additionally, “the United States [hadn’t] launched its own astronauts into space since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011,” CNN explains. “Since then, NASA’s astronauts have had to travel to Russia and train on the country’s Soyuz spacecraft, [which would launch them to the ISS]. Those seats have cost NASA as much as $90 million each.”
With the success of this launch, the US could likely revert its space engagemnts to national soil, as SpaceX and potentially other private companies begin to innovate the space travel sector. This was what NASA intended after all after it shut down the Space Shuttle program 9 years ago.
“The space agency chose not to create its own replacement for the Shuttle. Instead, it asked the private sector to develop a spacecraft capable of safely ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station — a controversial decision considering that NASA had never before outsourced the development of a human-rated spacecraft. The thinking was that companies could drive down costs and spur innovation, and NASA would have more time and resources to focus on exploring deeper into the solar system,” CNN notes.
Boeing, Jeff Bezos’ secretive firm Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are also players in the privatization of space travel.
Eventually, the US as well as these companies have their eyes set on loftier goals: the Moon (by 2024, as per the US’ plans), and someday Mars, Musk’s dream destination.
“I am sort of overcome by emotion. To try to come up with cohesive sentences that make any sense is quite difficult,” Musk said about the Crew Dragon launch’s success, “But I think this is, hopefully, the first step on a journey towards civilization on on Mars.”
But what would space travel and eventually colonization look like decades from now? We take a look at what could be.