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Beyond the big splash: What SpaceX success means for America

Why We Wrote This

With the successful return of SpaceX’s crew capsule, the United States appears poised once again to lead human spaceflight. For many Americans, space travel is part of their national identity.

NASA/AP
The SpaceX team watches from Hawthorne, California, as the company’s Crew Dragon docks with the International Space Station’s Harmony module March 3. SpaceX is one of several American private companies hoping to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

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American spaceflight hasn’t been so American for the past eight years. Since NASA’s space shuttle program shut down in 2011, the only way to the International Space Station has been aboard Russian spacecraft. So that’s how U.S. astronauts have traveled. But that may be about to change.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule concluded a critical test flight to the International Space Station on Friday morning. And if the next safety test goes well, the spacecraft could ferry astronauts from U.S. soil to the space station as soon as this summer. Boeing is hot on SpaceX’s heels with its own Starliner spacecraft, also designed to be an astronaut taxi.

Spaceflight has long been a point of national pride for Americans. “There is sort of a cultural belief that [spaceflight] is what a great nation does, and we are a great nation,” says Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian and National Air and Space Museum curator emeritus. “It’s a part of a sense of American exceptionalism.”

If the private companies succeed, the US could be on track to reclaim a portion of its pioneering identity.

It sounds like a quirky children’s film: Ripley the mannequin blasts off in a rocket with nothing but her trusty stuffed Earth. The two get separated on the International Space Station, but Ripley returns home from her weeklong voyage alone, yet triumphant. But that’s just what happened this week. And it could signal a new era in American spaceflight.

Ripley, named for Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movie franchise, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean Friday morning at 8:45 a.m. EST in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Thus concluded the spacecraft’s first test flight to the International Space Station – a milestone for the American private spaceflight industry. If a subsequent test of the craft’s in-flight abort system goes well, the capsule could ferry actual NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as July.

Spaceflight has been a point of national pride for Americans since the dawn of the Space Age. But the United States hasn’t launched astronauts from American soil in eight years. Now, with the successful return of the capsule, the nation is poised to lead human space travel anew – and reclaim a portion of its pioneering identity.

“It’s part of the American ethos,” says Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight division. “If we were to say that we were never going to have a U.S. human space transportation capability, I think that America and Americans would feel diminished in some way.”

After NASA’s space shuttle program shut down in 2011, the only way for astronauts to get to the International Space Station (ISS) has been aboard Russia’s Soyuz launch system. (The only other nation currently capable of human spaceflight is China, but the U.S. prohibits collaboration due to military concerns.)

That’s a far cry from the Cold War competition between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. that first launched people into space. But the tensions of the original space race helped sow the idea of human spaceflight as a display of national prowess.

“We saw ourselves as the great power after World War II, unchallenged,” says Roger Handberg, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. But national self-confidence was shaken as the USSR shot out ahead of the U.S. in the space race, he says. Being first to set foot on the moon restored that confidence.

“There is sort of a cultural belief that [spaceflight] is what a great nation does, and we are a great nation,” says Roger Launius, former NASA chief historian and National Air and Space Museum curator emeritus. “It’s a part of a sense of American exceptionalism.”

NASA/AP
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast Friday, March 8, 2019. If a subsequent test of the craft’s in-flight abort system goes well, the capsule could ferry actual NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as July.

NASA’s space shuttle program was supposed to lay the groundwork for space to become familiar, accessible territory for all. But political will waned as costs and safety concerns soared. After 30 years, the program folded to shift funds for human spaceflight endeavors beyond low-Earth orbit.

Achieving “firsts” was the hallmark of the space race, and each new milestone represented bragging rights. So refocusing on charging into new frontiers was supposed to be a continuation of American leadership in space – and therefore earn more global prestige. But subsequent projects have been dogged by funding problems and delays.

In the meantime, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the ISS, a flight that can cost as much as $81 million a head. But more than that, this arrangement has meant that the U.S. has ceded control, says Valerie Neal, chair of the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum.

“Our human spaceflight program is contingent on the capabilities and the goodwill and the fiscal policy of another space agency,” she says. “That compromises the United States’ ability to do what it wants to in space on its own terms. It takes away some of that independence and autonomy.”

NASA leads in space in myriad other ways. The U.S. has launched numerous satellites and sent robotic envoys hurtling into the farthest reaches of the solar system. NASA can do (and does) almost everything humanity can do in space. The only thing currently missing is the ability to launch American astronauts from American soil.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft would bring back that capability. But it is designed to carry just a few people to low-Earth orbit, not forge into unknown territory. And as a result, for some, the capsule’s successful test flight isn’t much to crow about just yet.

“We’re kind of where we were during the first couple of shuttle flights,” says David Portree, space historian and community outreach specialist at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Realistically, where are we going? It could be we’ll see the same story repeat, or maybe we’ll see something really great happen. We don’t know at this point.”

The goal, says NASA’s Mr. McAlister, is to have private companies running the show in low-Earth orbit. Just as government officials fly on commercial airlines today, NASA would simply purchase rides on the space companies’ launch systems. That could save the agency money, Mr. McAlister says, freeing up funding for NASA to aim for places no other space agency has gone.

Having multiple players flying humans into low-Earth orbit also creates redundancy in the system, Mr. McAlister adds. If one nation or company’s spacecraft were to fail, others could step in and ensure that astronauts on the ISS have a ride home, for example. Furthermore, as seen with previous disasters, spaceflight is a risky endeavor, and a failure can force engineers to press pause on a program for a few years while evaluating and resolving the problem.

SpaceX isn’t the only American company on the verge of launching an astronaut taxi service. Boeing is also set to conduct similar safety tests of its Starliner spacecraft this spring, with a crewed test targeted for August. Both SpaceX and Boeing have billion dollar contracts with NASA for building such astronaut transportation.

“The more vehicles you’ve got, the better off you are,” Dr. Launius says. “I would like to think that in five years, or certainly within 10 years, we’ll have a range of vehicles from which to choose to fly astronauts into space. We’ve never had that in the past.”

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