Exactly at 3.22 p.m. ET on May 30, a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard a CrewDragon capsule took off from the iconic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was the second attempt. Bad weather forced a call-off on the earlier attempt on May 27.
Better late than never. The launch heralds a new era in Space. Firstly, once again, American astronauts were launched on an American rocket from American soil since the shuttle program ended in 2011. Additionally, SpaceX becomes the first private player to send humans into Space. For Elon Musk, it’s another “first-ever” feather in his cap.
“We as a nation have not had our own access to the International Space Station for nine years. This is a very exciting time,” NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month during at a news briefing.
More than American pride
But #LaunchAmerica mission is more than just about American pride. It is a milestone in NASA’s long and arduous efforts around commercialization of the Space sector. It is not new for NASA to work with private companies that have been involved in everything from building Apollo rockets to maintenance of the International Space Station. One of the most iconic example of contract R&D is the Moon Mission. For the Apollo program, the US government spent $26 billion between 1960 and 1972. Over 300 projects contributed, in areas as wide as aeronautics to electronics to nutrition and textiles, resulting in over 1,800 spinoff products, from freeze-dried food to cooling suits to fly-by-wire flight control systems used in airplanes and more. The program is often cited as being instrumental in kick-starting private Space industry in US.
But what makes the #LaunchAmerica mission different is that it has been a PPP project in every sense of the term, and not just contracting work. The Commercial Crew Development Program was competitive from the very beginning with private companies asked to develop indigenous technologies to support future US Space crew operations. The private industry were given a free hand in terms of design and development, instead of NASA drawing up the designs and then contracting that work. In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX were chosen. While the Boeing project is still delayed, Saturday’s historic SpaceX launch points to more that are in the offing.
The ambitious Artemis program of the US to land humans on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 is reliant on collaborations between NASA and private companies, one the lines of the Commercial Crew Development Program. “We are proving out a business model, a public-private partnership business model that ultimately will enable us to go to the moon, this time sustainably,” Bridenstine had said. About a month ago, NASA had announced that three companies including SpaceX were selected for developing Lunar landing systems.
What the future holds
The success of the Saturday date with Space is exciting for the commercial Space sector, not just in the US, but globally too.
For one, it establishes the private sector’s significance in investing in Space, where the risk and reward factors are often not seen on a par with non-Space investments. Investment in Space — in duration and capital – is long and exponentially high, respectively. Beginning a project to commencement of services is a long loop that make it extremely difficult for companies to attract investments, more so in a field that has seen a tight-hold of government policies and regulatory norms.
In the past decade, not only did US spend precious dollars every time it hitched a ride with Russia to the Space Station, it was also low on morale for a country which otherwise has been the undeclared leader in Space science and has expressed ambitious plans of Deep Space exploration. Off late, the American Space industry also has had to face challenges in traditional satellite manufacturing and launch services from India and China, the two countries with readily available technologies and lower manufacturing costs.
The success of the #LaunchAmerica mission can be seen as a step towards US’s urgent need to stay ahead in SpaceTech and New Systems Development. With Covid-19 threat to the global job market, development of commercial Space sector opens a new front for demand of skilled and high-paying workers. Private players in the development of the Space industry will allow it to continue being the leader. A vibrant, sustainable commercial Space industry will greatly enhance the US’s Space exploration achievements, accelerate scientific discovery, add a major new area for economic growth and inspire students to focus on STEM education and careers.
This also is an indicator to how the government wants commercial satellite and Earth Observation industry to shape up. In a significant development that can be seen as an attempt to ensure continued US leadership in the critical commercial Space industry, on May 19, the US Department of Commerce released new guidelines to ease the licensing process for private satellite remote sensing operations in the country, a move that has been widely welcomed by the industry players.
Saturday’s mission is a shot in the arm for the commercial Space industry as it signals a way forward in exploration of the Final Frontier, scientific endeavors and, indeed, a new domain of economic growth, crucial in the current times. The launch points to a future where NASA can completely hand over ‘lesser’ tasks and infrastructure building to commercial players, so that it focuses on larger goals and imperatives.
As Bridenstine said, “This is a unique opportunity to bring all of America together in one moment in time and say, ‘Look at how bright the future is’. That’s what this launch is all about.”
There is a lesson here for global Space industry too.
NASA LIVE: OFFICIAL STREAM OF NASA TV