Astronauts Bob Behnken & Doug Hurley
Credit: SpaceX/Ashish Sharma
Demo 2 Launch Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Docking with ISS
Arrival at ISS
Credit: NASA Bill Stafford
America is BACK! After a picture-perfect launch and docking with the International Space Station, our 'right stuff' astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, entered the International Space Station on May 31. This historic launch of the first crewed commercial SpaceX rocket marked the first time since 2011 that we could send our astronauts to space on American rockets.
The return of American astronauts on American rockets with the SpaceX crew Dragon launch is vital for several reasons.
1. America is no longer reliant on access to space exclusively on Russian rockets. For nine years our access to space was entirely reliant on Russian rockets, with no backup capabilities in case of accidents. While we wish them well, Russia's non-military space program has been imploding over the past couple decades, and their program is plagued with poor quality control--alarmingly including an apparently intentionally-caused leak in a Soyuz spacecraft. In spite of spending great sums on a new launch complex at Vostochny within Russian territory--Baikonur is in Kazakhstan, Vostochny has yet to see a crewed or Progress launch, and plans for a new generation of human-rated rockets and spacecraft have never advanced. Sadly, Russia is opposing commercial development in space by refusing to sign the Artemis Accords, which lay out the rule of law for the future in space.
2. Redundant launch capability with SpaceX and next year Boeing. America learned the hard way with the two space shuttle accidents that single-sourced launch platforms can ground our space program.
We were lucky that there have been no crew launch accidents with Soyuz. However, in 2011, the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration presented a paper to NASA on alternatives to decrewing ISS when a Soyuz Progress launch failed. Because the crewed Soyuz used the same second stage as Progress, all crew launches were cancelled. This resulted in three astronaut leaving ISS without replacements, and ISS was in danger of being entirely decrewed for the first time since 2000. Just weeks before the return flight of the remaining three crew, Soyuz was cleared for return to flight, and a new crew arrived at ISS. Two different launch platforms are essential to continuous access to space.
3. Great boost to America's worldwide stature, and beating China. Nothing says American exceptionalism and worldwide leadership than being able to lunch astronauts and soon paying travelers on our own rockets. China is planning to build a small space station beginning this year, but their space program is a military-run non-commercial program. America is setting the example for new private industries and opportunities in space.
4. Creation of a commercial crew market. This may be remembered as the most important result from commercial crew. We will see paid voyages to orbit and to ISS soon, which allows scientists, universities, countries without space programs, filmmakers, industrialists, entrepreneurs and tourists to reach orbit. Companies including Bigelow Aerospace have designed space habitats and laboratories, which will now have a market of people and industry able to reach orbit for commercial and tourist purposes. NASA has agreed to let actor Tom Cruise film a movie on ISS.
5. Dragon and Boeing's Starliner can both seat four people in ISS configuration, one more than Soyuz. and they could be configured for up to seven. The fourth seat will often be used by NASA to fly an additional crew member from one of our ISS partners. This will increase the frequency our partners will be able to go to ISS--space diplomacy, and NASA is also allowing private individuals to buy the extra seat and stay on ISS for a short time.
6. Increased public attention, thus support, for our space program including returning to the moon by 2024. The media has largely refused to cover the exciting news of returning to the Moon by 2024 (The Washington Post, for example put 51 stories ahead of the initial March 2019 announcement--the exciting news was buried on page A-24), however the SpaceX launch was covered extensively by the media, drawing millions to learn more about NASA's programs including Artemis. This gets people enthusiastic and will build support in Congress as well.
7. President Trump leadership highlighted in returning American space exploration--while the commercial crew was in progress before 2017, America wouldn't be returning to the Moon in this decade or going to Mars but for his leadership.