SpaceX lifts NASA astronauts to orbit, launching new era of spaceflight

  • >> Kenneth Chang, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-31 06:00:59 BdST

The United States opened a new era of human space travel Saturday as a private company for the first time launched astronauts into orbit, nearly a decade after the government retired the storied space shuttle program in the aftermath of national tragedy.

Two American astronauts lifted off at 3:22 p.m. from a familiar setting, the same Florida launch pad that once served Apollo missions and the space shuttles. But the rocket and capsule that lofted them out of the atmosphere were a new sight for many — built and operated not by NASA but by SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk to pursue his dream of sending colonists to Mars.

Crowds of spectators, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, watched and cheered as the countdown ticked to zero and the engines of a Falcon 9 rocket roared to life.

Rising slowly at first, the rocket then shot like a sleek, silvery javelin into humid skies, three days after an earlier launch was cancelled because of concerns about lightning and other unsafe weather.

It was a moment of triumph and perhaps nostalgia for the country, a welcome reminder of America’s global preeminence in science, technological innovation and private enterprise at a time its prospects and ambitions have been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty and political strife. Millions around the world watched the launch online and on television, many from self-imposed quarantine in their homes.

Trump, who watched from a rooftop at the space centre, called it “an inspiration for our country” after the ship lifted off.

“Today’s launch makes clear the commercial space industry is the future,” Trump said in later remarks in the giant Vehicle Assembly Building where the Saturn 5 moon rocket was once stacked.

“We have created the envy of the world and will soon be landing on Mars and soon have the greatest weapons ever imagined in history,” he added.

The Falcon 9 carried a Crew Dragon capsule, guided by teams of SpaceX personnel in control centres in Florida and Hawthorne, California. It was scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.

A Jan. 17, 2020 photo provided by NASA shows astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley donning their spacesuits during a dress rehearsal of SpaceX’s uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On Wednesday, May 27, weather permitting, Behnken and Hurley are to be sitting on top of a SpaceX rocket headed to orbit. (Kim Shiflet/NASA via The New York Times)

A Jan. 17, 2020 photo provided by NASA shows astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley donning their spacesuits during a dress rehearsal of SpaceX’s uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On Wednesday, May 27, weather permitting, Behnken and Hurley are to be sitting on top of a SpaceX rocket headed to orbit. (Kim Shiflet/NASA via The New York Times)

Aboard are two veterans of the astronauts corps, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. NASA selected the two men along with a group of their colleagues to be the first customers of space capsules built by private companies.

It was the first launch of NASA astronauts from the US since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. In the years since, NASA has paid Russia’s space program to transport its astronauts to the space station. And with this success, NASA, to its own delight, has begun ceding this task to SpaceX and other companies, and it opens new possibilities for entrepreneurs looking to make money off the planet.

The transformation at NASA, especially of its human spaceflight program, has been slow in coming, and Musk, a 48-year-old native of South Africa who started SpaceX with little knowledge of rockets, is an unlikely person to be at the vanguard.

“I’m really quite overcome with emotion on this day,” Musk said during a news conference after the launch. “It’s hard to talk, frankly.”

At the turn of the millennium, Musk, still in his 20s, was chief executive of PayPal, making his first fortune when eBay bought that company.

Musk selected a quixotic project as the focus of his newfound wealth: sending a small greenhouse to Mars.

Because rockets were so expensive in the US, he went to Russia seeking to buy a launch on a converted Russian ballistic missile. Unable to close a deal with the Russians, Musk turned to Jim Cantrell, an aerospace consultant accompanying him on the trip, and Michael Griffin, who would later become NASA administrator, and said, “Guys, I think we can build these rockets ourselves.”

He founded SpaceX in 2002 and soon vaulted into the popular imagination, a strong-willed figure who clashed with regulators and can sound both humble and full of ambition verging on hubris.

The first three launches of his Falcon 1 rocket failed. With one more failure, SpaceX would have joined the graveyard of failed rocket startups. The fourth Falcon 1 made it to orbit.

“The fourth launch worked, or that would have been it for SpaceX,” Musk said in a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in 2017. “But fate liked us that day.”

During this time, NASA was going through upheaval after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during reentry into the atmosphere in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board.

President George W. Bush decided the remaining three shuttles would be retired and then the money devoted toward the shuttles could be used for returning to the moon.

The rockets for that moon program, Constellation, would be built and operated by NASA, just as in the past.

But Griffin, who had accompanied Musk on that trip to Moscow, opened a competition for companies to bid on contracts to carry cargo to the space station.

SpaceX was one of the two companies that NASA selected, and investments from the space agency helped Musk’s company develop the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule, which evolved into the Crew Dragon spacecraft that is now en route to the space station.

During a flight in 2015, SpaceX pulled off a feat that seemed like something out of science fiction. Usually, the first stage of a rocket, also known as a booster, falls into the ocean, becoming trash after just one use. On this flight, the Falcon 9 booster, after it dropped away, turned around and returned, landing vertically at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX now routinely lands and reuses its boosters — including the one used Saturday — passing the cost savings onto its customers.

The Obama administration cancelled the Constellation program. But it needed a replacement for taking astronauts to the space station.

Taking inspiration from the successful cargo program, NASA sought proposals from companies to start transporting people as well. In 2014, the space agency selected Boeing and SpaceX.

A goal of the program was to free up money in NASA’s budget to devote to more ambitious projects like sending astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

It will certainly save taxpayers the expense of paying Russia to take NASA astronauts to space. This month, the space agency agreed to buy one more seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket for $90 million.

The developmental costs to NASA of commercial crew programs totalled about $6 billion, Philip McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, reported this month. That’s a considerably cheaper way to get to the space station than NASA’s previous plan of using an Orion capsule designed for deep-space missions and the Ares I rocket that was being developed as part of Constellation. McAlister said cost estimates for getting that system to the launch pad were $24.5 billion to $34.5 billion.

But while NASA may spend less on trips to the space station, it is still developing a larger rocket for human spaceflight at Congress’ direction called the Space Launch System and has continued work on Orion. Reports by NASA’s inspector general find that the program is now billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Still, by supporting SpaceX’s and Boeing’s spacecraft, NASA may help the companies incubate other kinds of business in space.

Two companies, Axiom Space and Space Adventures, have already announced plans to buy launches in SpaceX’s capsule to transport non-NASA passengers — space tourists — to the space station or on shorter orbital trips. NASA also confirmed this month that Tom Cruise expressed interest in using the space station for a film.

NASA’s next aim is to try this commercial approach on the moon, where its future seems less certain.

The agency signed three companies, including Space X, last month to produce three landers that could be used to take astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Early prototypes of SpaceX’s proposed lander, a giant vessel named Starship, have so far failed spectacularly; its latest model was destroyed in an explosion Friday after the end of an engine test firing.

President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, obscured, and others watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule, carrying Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, lift off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, obscured, and others watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule, carrying Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, lift off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Another recipient of this lunar lander program’s funding is Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Bezos’ wealth ensures that he can make long-term investments, regardless of the whims of space policy in the United States, in his pursuit of what he describes as a future with millions of people living and working in space.

NASA officials noted that the lunar lander proposals were optimistic about how quickly the spacecraft could be developed; the Trump administration has committed to a 2024 mission. Yet, the designs rely on rockets that have yet to launch.

NASA, spurred by the National Space Council, of which Pence is chairman, is also taking steps it hopes will help commercial space stations replace the International Space Station near the end of the decade. Axiom, a company led by a former NASA manager of the space station, is building a commercial module to be attached to the space station, and when the space station is retired, that module will be detached to form a piece of an independent station owned and operated by Axiom.

Commercial ventures have already used the International Space Station to conduct pharmaceutical research, manufacture optical fibres and launch satellites. New space stations could make it easier for other ventures to take advantage of near gravity-free environments.

“Let’s have a robotic factory so the gravity disturbances are nil and you can produce high-quality films and process products and pharmaceutical drugs,” said Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, a company that flies experiments to the space station. “I’m not dependent on the government to send my tourists, my honeymooners or my scientists.”

However uncertain and far-off that future feels, SpaceX and NASA appeared energised by the prospects of the successful launch Saturday.

Just after noon, the astronauts were seen off by their families before their drive to the launch pad. Behnken asked his son, Theodore, “Are you going to listen to Mommy and make her life easy?” referring to Megan McArthur, his wife and a fellow astronaut. Theodore, 6, replied, “Let’s light this candle!” (Hurley, too, is married to a fellow astronaut, Karen Nyberg.)

Within the hour, the men had boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and began the hours of pre-launch procedures. Once they were sealed in the capsule, Behnken and Hurley, and all watching them, waited patiently for about two hours to see if the weather would cooperate with the day’s trip.

And their patience paid off. The weather cleared as the rocket was loaded with propellant. And after the countdown and liftoff, a voice from SpaceX’s launch team bid the astronauts on a safe mission: “Go NASA. Go SpaceX. Godspeed, Bob and Doug!”