- SpaceX is about to launch its first people into orbit via an experimental flight of its new Crew Dragon spaceship.
- The astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will pilot the mission, called Demo-2 – but their safety is not all that’s at stake for NASA and SpaceX.
- SpaceX has big plans for lunar and Mars exploration but needs to first demonstrate that it can safely fly crewed missions to low-Earth orbit.
- NASA, meanwhile, wants to resurrect crewed US spaceflight for the first time in nearly a decade.
- The flight also represents a path for NASA to fully staff the International Space Station, end Russia’s spaceflight monopoly, and do space-based research in support of future moon and Mars missions.
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Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the hope of inspiring Mars exploration.
These days, though, SpaceX dreams of flying people around the moon and later landing some on the surface, then moving on to establish Martian cities, drop a million settlers there, and back up the human race from some global calamity.
But if SpaceX is to have any hope of achieving such grand visions, the rocket company must first prove it can safely fly people to and from low-Earth orbit, a stepping stone to all deep-space destinations.
This makes the stakes of SpaceX's next rocket launch, a mission called Demo-2, so high. If weather, hardware, and other factors cooperate, the company's Crew Dragon spaceship will lift off next Wednesday at 4:33 p.m. ET - and mark SpaceX's first mission with passengers in the company's 18-year history.
But it's not just SpaceX with so much of its plans on the line.
NASA is entrusting SpaceX with the lives of two of its most experienced astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the duo set to pilot Crew Dragon on a roughly 110-day mission.
Through its larger Commercial Crew Program - which lets companies lead the development, construction, launch, and operation of spacecraft - the space agency has also invested more than $3.14 billion in SpaceX to create its new spaceflight capability. NASA has sunk an additional $4.8 billion into Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spaceship system too.
But for NASA, as for SpaceX, the launch of Demo-2 represents so much more - and it's a big reason the space agency and the rocket company are pressing to launch the mission despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Here are some of the biggest things at stake.
The first crewed space mission from the US in almost 9 years
NASA launched its final space shuttle, Atlantis, in July 2011. After that mission - the 133rd successful flight of the program - the space agency retired its entire fleet of 100-ton orbiters.
Since then, no American rocket-and-spaceship system has launched astronauts into space, including from US soil.
SpaceX's Demo-2 mission, if successful, would be the first to resurrect US crewed spaceflight - and provide NASA astronauts a path to space from American soil.
"This is a new generation, a new era in human spaceflight," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said during a press briefing on May 1.
The end of Russia's human-spaceflight monopoly
The US and Russia have cooperated in space since the 1970s, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz test program. So when NASA retired the space shuttle, the agency had at least one path to orbit: Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. (China has developed human-rated spaceships, but NASA can't work with that nation unless Congress explicitly allows it.)
However, Russia has used its spaceflight monopoly to charge more and more per round-trip ticket for each NASA astronaut. The cost has risen from about $21 million in 2008 (before the shuttle was retired) to more than $90 million per seat on a planned flight for October.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon, meanwhile, is projected to cost $55 million per seat, according to NASA's inspector general. The competition should also force Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, to lower its prices. NASA would also be in a position to barter and trade seats with a human-rated SpaceX ship.
"We see a day when Russian cosmonauts can launch on American rockets," Bridenstine said on May 1. "Remember, half of the International Space Station is Russian."
Better US access to a $100 billion investment in space
The agency has invested about $100 billion in taxpayer dollars into the International Space Station, which orbits Earth from about 250 miles above the planet. NASA spends about $3 billion to $4 billion a year to maintain the floating facility, supply it with cargo, and run experiments on it.
The microgravity environment enables unique pharmaceutical, materials-science, astronomical, medical, and other research. Astronauts are required to run most of the experiments, but the ISS has had a veritable skeleton crew since July 2011. That's because Soyuz can seat only three people but flies two NASA astronauts at most - a huge cut from the space shuttle's seven seats.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon, by no coincidence, can fly seven people at a time. Demo-2's successful launch would represent a major step toward fully staffing the ISS and enabling astronauts to spend less time on routine maintenance and more on running important laboratory experiments.
"The International Space Station is a critical capability for the United States of America. Having access to it is also critical," Bridenstine said. "We are moving forward very rapidly with this program that is so important to our nation and, in fact, to the entire world."
A bold new commercial market for space travel
When NASA books a ride with SpaceX, it plans to reserve four seats for its astronauts. This leaves SpaceX able to sell the others to private astronauts, or, in staid industry parlance, "spaceflight participants."
But SpaceX is already teeing up all-private space missions. NASA helped pave the way for an improved space-tourism market in June when it announced changes to the use of its modules on the space station to formally support private astronauts, though at a cost of $35,000 a night to cover lodging, supplies, internet, and other necessities.
"The deck was stacked very much against commercial activity on the space station," Richard Garriott, an English-American entrepreneur who paid $30 million for a two-week stay on the ISS in 2008, previously told Business Insider. "Almost all of us who flew privately literally had NASA either try to talk us out of it or try to ban us at one stage or another."
In February, SpaceX announced that it had sold four seats through a spaceflight tourism company called Space Adventures. Then in March, news broke that Axiom Space - led in part by a former ISS mission manager at NASA - had also signed a deal with SpaceX.
Even Tom Cruise intends to fly aboard Crew Dragon so he can film a new action movie on the space station.
Fewer unknowns in a return to the moon and a leap toward Mars
With its Artemis program, NASA is pushing hard to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s and have crews maintain a continuous presence on a base there. The agency, under the Trump administration, is also pushing for human exploration of Mars in the 2030s.
But little is known about how the human body might fare in either adventure, and the ISS provides the only space-based platform to earnestly ask those questions. So restoring and improving US access to it, saving money by improving competition, fostering commercial interest in orbit, and giving crew members more time to perform experiments would all ostensibly help.
SpaceX's Demo-2 mission represents the most concrete advancement yet toward achieving that goal.
"This launch is our next step towards increasing American and human presence on board the laboratory," Kirk Shireman, who manages the space station program at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said during the press briefing on May 1. "We look forward to having this flight and then repeatable - very repeatable - and sustainable low-Earth orbit Commercial Crew transportation flights."