SpaceX's momentous Crew Dragon launch is a sign of things to come for the space industry, and humanity's future.
- SpaceX was founded in 2002 and was an industry joke for many years. Eighteen years later, it is the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station.
- Today, SpaceX's Crew Dragon launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. The journey will take about 19 hours.
- Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, looks at SpaceX's journey from startup to a commercial space company with the operating power of a nation-state.
Today is a historic date for human spaceflight. For the first time in human history, a private company has taken astronauts, not just for a poke above the Karman line (the arbitrary line at 62 miles that divides the stratosphere from space) as Virgin Galactic has done, but much deeper into orbit, some 220 miles to the International Space Station. A feat that requires not only much higher altitude but a precise rendezvous with an object moving at over 17,000 miles per hour. In addition, this launch marks a huge milestone for US Spaceflight, as the US has now rectified the embarrassing fact that it has had no way of transporting its astronauts to space without relying on the Russian Federation. A circumstance that has persisted since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011. How did SpaceX, which was founded in 2002, achieve nation-level capability in 18 short years? How did it go from not being entrusted with the lowliest of payloads, to flying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley? And do so by delivering launch services at a fraction of the cost of both the US and Russia?
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
The humblest of beginnings
SpaceX was an inside joke for many in the space industry establishment even years after its founding. Its first three launches famously and spectacularly failed, leading to not only snickers among the industry elite, but stressing SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, down to literally their last dollar. As Musk has related several times, SpaceX's fourth launch was a "make or break." Had it failed, the company would have filed for bankruptcy. Thankfully, that launch was successful and SpaceX has really never looked back. The industry insiders who doubt SpaceX still exist, but their snickers have turned to more nuanced criticism, including that SpaceX unfairly benefits from government contracting. Which is ironic for an industry that has been built on a defense contracting model. The truth is, SpaceX has made space cool again. One only needs to compare its rocket launch telecasts with those of their competitors. One has Hollywood-level production quality and attracts over 1 million live viewers per launch and the others seem dated, uninspired and draw 25,000 viewers on their best day. This has led to SpaceX being one of the employers of choice in the space industry, despite its legendary long hours and difficult working environment. Attracting top talent has been one of the reasons SpaceX has been able to achieve its miraculous product success.
A big bet
Once SpaceX learned to launch rockets, Musk's product vision became more futuristic. Just like it doesn't make sense to fly a $400M Airbus 380 from Dubai to Los Angeles only to throw the airplane away after landing, Musk challenged the industry to reuse its rocket boosters. This vision was audacious and was faced with massive skepticism in the industry. Despite this, SpaceX stuck its first landing of a single rocket booster on April 8, 2016. Stuck its first dual rocket booster landing on February 6, 2018 and even stuck a triple landing on April 12, 2019. It has now landed 49 out of its last 51 attempts. This has literally changed the game in terms of both launch costs, but also cycle time (the amount of time needed between launches). It is a game changer that will be further stretched when the potentially revolutionary heavy rocket Starship is rolled out sometime in the next year. In addition to the boosters, SpaceX also recovers other parts from the launch including the fairing, which houses the actual payload of the launch.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside Crew Dragon.
Criticism and triumph
Elon Musk has his critics, and certainly he has his lieutenants who do not get enough credit for their impact on SpaceX's achievements, such a SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, but, regardless, it is indisputable that SpaceX has achieved a level of capability that is truly shocking in a relativity short period of time. Should SpaceX be celebrated for its persistence, entrepreneurism, innovation and ultimate value creation? Without question. Is SpaceX finished pushing boundaries and achieving what others thought was impossible? Not even close. If Musk stays healthy and avoids a Howard Hughes moment, as many fear, it is hard to doubt his ability to make his dream of landing humans on Mars a reality within his next 18 years (if not sooner).
The Crew Dragon demonstration of the launch escape system.
The Demo-2 mission represents a new era for American spaceflight.
- On Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX is set to become the first private company to launch humans into orbit.
- The company's Crew Dragon, launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, is scheduled to take two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
- Neil deGrasse Tyson will host the American Museum of Natural History's live-stream coverage of the launch.
On Wednesday afternoon, a SpaceX rocket is set to launch two NASA astronauts into space on a mission to the International Space Station. If successful, it'll be the first time a private company has put humans into orbit, and the first time astronauts have launched from American soil since NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
At 4:33 p.m E.T., SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is set to take off from the company's Launch Complex 39A site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. About 90 minutes before launch, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will walk across a walkway 230 feet above the ground and climb into Crew Dragon — the SpaceX capsule that sits atop the Falcon 9 rocket.
Hurley (R) and Behnken (L)
Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA
It won't be the Crew Dragon's first mission. Last year, SpaceX successfully sent a Crew Dragon carrying only cargo to the International Space Station. But the company has also suffered setbacks with the capsule, including thruster and parachute complications, and a 2019 explosion that occurred during testing.
If successful, Falcon 9 will launch the Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit 12 minutes after takeoff. The rocket will then begin a controlled descent to its landing site on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurley and Behnken will manually fly Crew Dragon toward the ISS.
When they approach the station, Crew Dragon's autonomous docking system will take over, and the capsule will connect to the station at 11:29 a.m. on Thursday. The NASA astronauts will then board the ISS, where they'll likely remain for several months. (NASA has yet to confirm the details of the return mission.)
Walkway to SpaceX's Crew Dragon atop the Falcon 9 rocket
In addition to being a milestone for private spaceflight, Wednesday's mission — called Demo-2 — is also the culmination of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Started in 2010, the federally funded program aims to pair NASA with private companies — like SpaceX and Boeing — to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. The mission also represents the end of an era in which the U.S. has relied on Russia to transport American astronauts to the ISS.
"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," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Here's where you can live-stream the historic launch:
American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History will begin streaming around 11 a.m. E.T. The live-stream event will begin with curator Ruth Angus examining "the awe-inspiring leap from imagination to scientific achievement in space exploration." At 1 p.m., the museum's Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart and astrophysicist Jackie Faherty will take viewers on a virtual field trip to the ISS. Around 4 p.m., Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson will join Faherty and museum curator Michael Shara to provide live commentary on the launch.
NASA's live-streaming channel will begin covering the launch Wednesday at 12 p.m. E.T. The agency will provide live commentary, and will also show the astronauts joining the crew of the ISS after the capsule docks with the station.
SpaceX's YouTube channel will also live-stream the launch, though the link is not yet available. We'll update it as it comes online.
UPDATE: The SpaceX link is now active and the live-stream is scheduled to begin at 12:15 p.m.
Here's what the world's space agencies hope to learn about the Red planet.
- Three nations have plans to send unmanned missions to Mars in summer 2020: the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates.
- SpaceX has discussed executing both manned and unmanned Mars missions this decade, though the company describes these dates as "aspirational."
- Each space agency plans to study a different aspect of Mars, though searching for signs of past life is a common theme among the missions.
Putting humans on Mars is the next giant leap in space exploration, yet it remains a far-off goal for national and private space agencies. There's no shortage of complications. With all the economic, technological, and safety hurdles to overcome, some critics say sending manned missions to the Red planet simply doesn't make sense. This thinking explains, in part, why NASA's current long-term strategy is to first return astronauts to the moon in order to "demonstrate capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations."
But that hasn't stopped space agencies from planning unmanned Mars missions for the near future and, more aspirationally, manned missions after that.
Three unmanned Mars missions are set to launch in summer 2020. The timing is no coincidence: Once every two years, Earth and Mars come especially close together because their orbits are "at opposition," which is when the Earth-Mars distance is smallest during the 780-day synodic period. This is an opportune window to send spacecraft to Mars.
As far as a manned mission to Mars? It could happen in the 2020s, but that seems unlikely. But whenever it does, it could mark the beginning of an era where humans live on the Red planet in permanent, large-scale settlements. For example, by 2117, the U.A.E. wants to build a massive Martian city of 600,000 inhabitants, while SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that it is "possible to make a self-sustaining city on Mars by 2050, if we start in 5 years & take 10 orbital synchronizations."
For now, three space agencies plan to launch unmanned Mars missions in 2020, while several others hope to launch Martian projects later in the decade.
This summer, NASA plans to send an unmanned rover to the Red planet for its Mars 2020 mission. A key objective of this mission, which will include deploying a small autonomous helicopter, is to find evidence of extraterrestrial life, not only by "seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself," NASA writes on its website.
But the agency doesn't plan to send people to Mars anytime soon. NASA first wants to return humans to the moon, aiming to "land astronauts on the surface no later than the late 2020s." The agency has no official timeline for putting humans on Mars, and a 2019 report suggested the late 2030s is the earliest it could do so.
Mars Exploration Rover – A
As of May 2020, NASA's Curiosity rover is still operational, roaming the martian surface at top speeds of 0.086 mph.
In 2019, China successfully landed a rover on the dark side of the moon. This summer, the nation has its sights on an even more ambitious goal: sending an orbiter, lander, and rover to Mars in one trip, something no nation has done before. The mission is called Tianwen-1, meaning "questions to heaven," and its aim is to search for pockets of water below the Martian surface, while also looking for signs of ancient life.
United Arab Emirates
In July 2020, the U.A.E.'s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre plans to launch the Hope Mars Mission, which includes a probe that would orbit Mars and study its weather patterns. For the U.A.E., the mission is designed to push the country toward a knowledge-based economy.
"Going to Mars was not the main objective," Omran Sharaf, mission lead for the Hope spacecraft, which is also known as the Emirates Mars Mission, told Space.com. "It's a means for a bigger goal: to expedite the development in our educational sector, academic sector."
The Hope Mars Mission, if successful, would be the first mission to Mars by any West Asian, Arab, or Muslim-majority country.
In 2024, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch a uniquely bold interplanetary mission that will involve sending a probe to orbit Mars, landing on the Martian moon Phobos, collecting surface samples, and then returning those samples to Earth in 2029. JAXA says the mission has two main objectives:
- To investigate whether the Martian moons are captured asteroids or fragments that coalesced after a giant impact with Mars, and to acquire new knowledge on the formation process of Mars and the terrestrial planets.
- To clarify the mechanisms controlling the surface evolution of the Martian moons and Mars, and to gain new insights into the history of the Mars Sphere, including that of the Martian moons.
An improved, color enhanced version of the 360-degree Gallery Pan taken by Mars Pathfinder in 1997.
Elon Musk's aerospace company has its eyes on two Mars voyages: a cargo-only mission in 2022, and a human mission in 2024. The second mission would involve building a propellant depot and preparing a site for future crewed flights. But the company describes these dates as "aspirational." After all, SpaceX plans to use its Starship spacecraft to send Japanese billionaire Yukazu Maezawa and a handful of artists into lunar orbit in 2023. Musk has suggested this trip would be Starship's first mission.
@AstrumMining @SPEXcast @McMurchie @Robotbeat @John_Gardi @SpaceX Moon first, Mars as soon as the planets align— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk)1549864554.0
Regarding the long-term future of humans on the Red planet, Musk once told Ars Technica:
"I'll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining. But I'd like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars."
Russia and the European Union
Roscosmos and the European Space Agency plan to send a Russian lander and a European rover to the Martian surface in 2022 as part of ExoMars. The mission aims to find out if there has ever been life on Mars, and also to understand the history of water on the planet. It's part of a long-term Mars project that began in 2016. This second phase was initially planned for 2020, but due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the space agencies decided to postpone the mission by two years.
"We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.
In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization executed its first interplanetary trip with its Mars Orbiter Mission. It marked the first time an Asian nation reached Martian orbit, and also the first time a nation successfully reached the Red planet on its maiden voyage. India has plans for a follow-up Mars Orbiter Mission 2, but it remains unclear when that will occur, and what the mission will entail. Some reports suggest the mission will include a rover and lander, in addition to an orbiter.
The 57-year-old is teaming up with NASA and SpaceX for the film project, which is to be set aboard the International Space Station.
- NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the project on Tuesday via Twitter.
- The project — an action-adventure movie — would be the first narrative film shot in space.
- It's unclear how Cruise will get to the space station. Later this May, SpaceX and NASA plan to send American astronauts to the ISS aboard a SpaceX vehicle.
From staging 100-mph car-chase scenes as Jack Reacher, to breaking an ankle jumping across rooftops as Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise is famous for doing his own stunts. Now, the 57-year-old actor is gearing up to perform what may be the biggest stunt in movie history: traveling to the International Space Station to shoot a feature film.
According to a Deadline report, Cruise is teaming up with SpaceX and NASA on the project, which is reportedly an action-adventure movie. It would be the first narrative film ever shot in space.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the plans Tuesday via Twitter.
NASA is excited to work with @TomCruise on a film aboard the @Space_Station! We need popular media to inspire a new… https://t.co/0mOEINnpuA— Jim Bridenstine (@Jim Bridenstine)1588706513.0
It's currently unclear how Cruise will travel to the ISS. The U.S. stopped sending astronauts to the station after it closed its shuttle program in 2011. Since then, the U.S. has paid Russia to transport astronauts to the space station.
But SpaceX and NASA hope to soon usher in a "new era of human spaceflight" with the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, scheduled for May 27. The mission involves sending a pair of American astronauts to the ISS aboard a SpaceX vehicle called Crew Dragon, launched by the company's Falcon 9 rocket.
It would be the first time SpaceX — or any private space company, for that matter — has sent astronauts to the ISS. (In 2012, SpaceX became the first company to send a cargo mission to the station.)
NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 mission will return U.S human spaceflight to the International Space Station from U.S. soil with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on an American rocket and spacecraft for the first time since 2011
Here's how NASA describes the upcoming Demo-2 flight:
"After successfully docking, [astronauts] Behnken and Hurley will be welcomed aboard [the] station and will become members of the Expedition 63 crew," NASA wrote on its website. "They will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew.
Upon conclusion of the mission, Crew Dragon will autonomously undock with the two astronauts on board, depart the space station and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Upon splashdown just off Florida's Atlantic Coast, the crew will be picked up at sea by SpaceX's Go Navigator recovery vessel and return to Cape Canaveral."
In January, NASA and a startup called Axiom Space announced plans to attach what's essentially a "space hotel" to the ISS, and to sell trips to non-astronauts. It would be a major step in the agency's years-long push to privatize the aging station.
Axiom has already lined up its first customer. The ticket cost? An estimated $55 million, the bulk of which comes from the steep cost of the rocket launch. But it's not much cheaper once you get to the station — a 2019 NASA report shows that the cost of life-support equipment alone is about $11,250 per day.
So, though much remains unclear about Cruise's upcoming film project, what's certain is that shooting it will require an astronomically huge budget.
The billionaire is also inviting eight artists along with him. It would be the first time a civilian crew has participated in a mission to the moon.
- The billionaire is Yusaku Maezawa, a 42-year-old Japanese entrepreneur who founded the clothing website Zozo.
- Maezawa, SpaceX's first paying passenger, purchased all the open seats on the first-of-its-kind mission.
- Maezawa is calling the mission an art project, dubbed #dearMoon.
- Elon Musk says Maezawa's risky investment in #dearMoon has "done a lot to restore my faith in humanity."
If you're an artist whose work catches the eye of Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, you might soon receive an extraordinary invitation: a seat on a spacecraft headed for the moon.
At a SpaceX event on Monday night, CEO Elon Musk and Maezawa, an art collector who made a fortune selling albums and clothing, announced plans to send the first civilian crew to space in 2023. The crew is scheduled to blast off from Earth, circle the moon, and return, a trip that's estimated to take four to five days.
The mission will be dangerous, Musk said, adding that Maezawa was "the bravest person" and "the best adventurer." SpaceX plans to launch the crew into space on a new rocket it's developing: the long-awaited BFR, which is also scheduled (aspirationally) to transport humans to Mars in 2022.
Maezawa purchased all the open seats on the first-of-its-kind mission, though the amount he paid is unclear. The billionaire plans to invite up to eight artists to join him on the lunar adventure.
Musk seemed taken with the idea.
"I'll tell you, it's done a lot to restore my faith in humanity," Musk said. "That somebody is willing to do this, take their money and help fund this new project that's risky, might not succeed, it's dangerous. He's like donating seats. These are great things."
Maezawa, who founded the shopping website Zozotown and is estimated to be worth more than $2 billion, views the upcoming mission as a "revolutionary art project" dubbed #dearMoon.
The project already has a website.
"I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself," Maezawa said. "I want to share these experiences and things with as many people as possible. That is why I choose to go to the moon with artists."
Maezawa is no stranger to the art world. As a former drummer in a California rock band, the 42-year-old made headlines in 2017 when he spent $110.5 million on a Basquiat painting, an untitled work roughly depicting a skull, at a Sotheby's auction.
"I decided to go for it," he said about the purchase.
Maezawa said he later wondered, "what if Basquiat had gone to space and seen the moon up close?"
He elaborated that thought in a post on the #dearMoon website.
"If Pablo Picasso had been able to see the moon up-close,
what kind of paintings would he have drawn?
If John Lennon could have seen the curvature of the Earth,
what kind of songs would he have written?
If they had gone to space, how would the world have looked today?"
Maezawa said he's loved the moon ever since he was a kid and that he thinks his art project could contribute toward world peace.
"Why do I want to go to the moon? What do I want to do there? For me this project is very meaningful," Maezawa said. "I thought long and hard about how it would be very valuable to become the first private passenger to go to the moon. At the same time, I thought how I could give to the world and how this could contribute to world peace. This is my lifelong dream."
The entrepreneur plans to personally reach out to a handful of artists, which could include painters, photographers, musicians, film directors, fashion designers, and architects.
"By the way, if you should hear from me please say yes and accept my invitation," he said. "Please don't say no."
At the end of the event, Maezawa offered one of the seats to Musk.
"As far as me going, I'm not sure," Musk said. "Maybe we'll both be on it."