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Why SpaceX’s next rocket launch is so important to NASA and Elon Musk

Why SpaceX’s next rocket launch is so important to NASA and Elon Musk
  • SpaceX is about to launch its first people into orbit, an experimental flight of its new Crew Dragon spaceship.
  • 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 yet needs to first demonstrate 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 the space-based research in support of future moon and Mars missions. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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.

spacex crew dragon spaceship falcon 9 rocket demo2 demo 2 mission hangar kennedy space center ksc EYgh5jaWsAEBant

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft integrated with a Falcon 9 rocket in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on May 20, 2020. The vehicle is scheduled to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on May 27.

SpaceX via Twitter

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 on May 27 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 future 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 will 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, as with SpaceX, the launch of Demo-2 represents so much more — and it’s a big reason why both NASA and the rocket company are pressing to launch the mission in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some of the biggest things at stake.

space shuttle atlantis sts135 july 2011 copyright dave mosher

Space shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Dave Mosher

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.

soyuz ms 11 rocket launch kazakhstan expedition 58 AP_18337431728260

The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-11 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

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 retired) to more than $90 million per seat on a planned October 2020 flight.

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. Further, 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.”

international space station iss size american us football field comparison illustration nasa

An illustration comparing the size of the International Space Station to an American football field.


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 run a veritable skeleton crew since July 2011. That’s because Soyuz can seat only three people, yet 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 enable 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.”

spacex crew dragon spaceship nasa commercial crew program illustration 42878298755_a9670c6596_o

An illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, also known as Dragon 2 or Dragon V2, orbiting Earth. (The first Dragon was a cargo and supply ship not designed to carry people.)

Kennedy Space Center/SpaceX via Flickr

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 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 inked 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

nasa illustration artemis moon lunar surface landing astronaut spacesuit stepping down ladder lander rover hls eva steps apr2020

An artist’s concept of NASA astronauts returning to the surface of the moon via its Artemis program.


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 currently provides the only space-based platform to earnestly ask those questions. Thus restoring and improving US access to it, saving on budget by improving competition, fostering commercial interest in orbit, and giving crew members more time to perform experiments would all ostensibly help.

As of right now, 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.”


Crew Dragon

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Rocket attack hits northern Iraq base hosting US troops

A rocket attack has slammed into an Iraqi base in the remote province of Kirkuk where US troops are stationed, security sources said. There were no immediate reports of casualties, AFP news agency citing Iraqi and US security sources reported on Thursday. More: Was Trump’s order to assassinate Iran’s Qassem Soleimani legal? Senate Democrats say measure…

Rocket attack hits northern Iraq base hosting US troops

A rocket attack has slammed into an Iraqi base in the remote province of Kirkuk where US troops are stationed, security sources said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, AFP news agency citing Iraqi and US security sources reported on Thursday.

Was Trump’s order to assassinate Iran’s Qassem Soleimani legal?

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US-Iran tensions: What war powers does Trump have?

Three separate Iraqi security sources told AFP that the Katyusha rocket hit the K1 base at around 8:45pm local time (1745 GMT) and US military aircraft immediately began flying low over the area.
It was the first attack on the K1 base since December 27, when a volley of about 30 rockets killed a US contractor there, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi military faction close to Iran.
The US then carried out retaliatory attacks that killed 25 Kataib Hezbollah fighters.
Days later, another strike killed the head of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah cofounder, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said the attack came at the end of a 40-day mourning in Iran over Soleimani’s death.
“There is the possibility that this has to do with the end of the 40-day mourning period for Qassem Soleimani today,” she said, adding that the attack could reignite tensions in the region.
The attack infuriated Shia Iraqi legislators who voted to remove more than 5,000 US troops deployed in the country in a January 3 Parliament session.
Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing with a barrage of missiles that targeted two airbases hosting US troops in Irbil and Ain al-Asad. The troops had prior warning and none were killed, but more than 100 have since been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.
Iran and the US have since refrained from further escalation, but the issue of US troops has monopolised Iraqi politics.
“There is a fear that such rocket attacks will trigger a response that will lead once again into an escalation in a crisis that has only recently calmed down,” Foltyn said.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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