NASA’s first manned flight since 2011 is being advertised as America’s hopeful return to space. To boldly go where no man has been before.

Is it really? Yes and no.

The launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday (27 May) came nine years after the end of the space shuttle programme. It is definitely a milestone.

Those nine years were the longest stretch since 1961 – when Alan Shepard became the first American in space – the US wasn’t able to launch its own astronauts. Since 2011, NASA has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rockets.

Add to that the commercial significance of the launch by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It is the first orbital launch of US astronauts by a private company.

Life on Mars

Analysts say the use of commercial spacecraft and rockets will free the US federal agency for more weighty things such as landing humans on Mars.

The argument is buying services in low-Earth orbit rather than providing them will allow NASA to pursue its own grand plan for the next phase of space exploration. It would also enable commercial exploitation of the relatively low-tech capability to fly private astronauts and even tourists to the ISS. This is the context of Tom Cruise’s fervent hope he will shoot his next film 250 miles above Earth.

“This is a new generation – a new era – in human spaceflight”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine

That’s a bold claim but true as far as the facts go.

 

From now on, private-sector spaceflight will make it possible to breach new economic frontiers. Space tourism beckons as a possibility, which may be a handy aspiration considering the pandemic has halted travel on earth. That said, it’s not clear whether there will be big returns from business activity in space.

Good politics

Even so, the launch makes for good politics. President Donald Trump travelled to Florida to watch the SpaceX launch knowing the US space programme enjoys substantial support across party lines.

Trump’s political rival, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee Joe Biden, has also allied with the milestone. Biden’s campaign organised a press call with former NASA administrator Charles Bolden and former Florida senator Bill Nelson. It credited former vice-president Biden as a key advocate of commercial spaceflight.

Ten years ago Biden’s boss, Barack Obama, announced a plan to rely on private companies for American trips to the ISS.

But it’s not clear whether this moment is as much of a triumph as some suggest. Some question the logic of a “new era of mainly billionaire-backed space exploration”. They also fear space will be strewn with junk and polluted in the same way as our planet.

Beacon of hope

Meanwhile, some American outlets have described the SpaceX launch as a “beacon of hope in an otherwise dark time”.

Beacon or a bad omen? How should we categorise the SpaceX launch?

More than half a century after the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the jury is out on the implications of this giant leap for commercial ventures in space.

(Watch the official NASA live-stream here.)

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