The flight of SpaceX's Dragon and the coming age of commercial spaceflight

The flight of SpaceX's Dragon and the coming age of commercial spaceflight
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When the SpaceX crewed Dragon — sans crew except for a test dummy named Ripley — lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center and then docked with the International Space Station, many hailed the mission as the start of a new age of commercial spaceflight. The pronouncements were a little premature. As of this writing, the Dragon still must undock from the ISS and then splashdown successfully, having returned to Earth. Then the SpaceX spacecraft must undergo a launch abort test. No earlier than July, the Dragon will fly again, this time with a crew of astronauts. Only after the successful completion of these tests will people ride to and from the ISS onboard Elon Musk’s modern, high-tech space capsule.

The Boeing Starliner will have to undergo the same test flights before it is qualified for regularly scheduled jaunts to and from low Earth orbit.

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Still, the day that American astronauts will once again depart the Earth from American soil on American spacecraft is drawing nigh. Ever since the space shuttle orbiter fleet was consigned to museums, Americans have had to pay for rides on the Russian Soyuz at inflated prices. The arrangement was always fraught with danger for two reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin always had the option to cut off the United States from access to the space station that Americans largely built and paid for in a fit of pique over some unrelated, earthly issue, such as Russian military adventures in the Ukraine and Syria. Quality control issues plaguing the Russian space program also threatened to cut off access to the ISS, as happened in the fall of 2018.

With any luck, by the end of 2019, the long-awaited age of commercial spaceflight will have begun in earnest. This new era will be called into reality by spacecraft conceived by President George W. Bush, continued by President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBudowsky: Biden or Beto: Where's the beef? Super Tuesday bonanza raises stakes for Dems Whatever happened to nuclear abolition? MORE, and then brought to completion by President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE, a rare case of bipartisan agreement. But what do we mean by commercial spaceflight?

Initially, having commercially built and operated spacecraft will mean that NASA and other astronauts will fly into space more cheaply and reliably than the space shuttle was able to deliver. Cheaper spaceflight is no small thing, freeing money for other projects such as the return to the moon. Putin will no longer have veto power over whether America will have a human space program.

However, the crewed Dragon and the Starliner will give SpaceX and Boeing options to develop truly commercial spaceflight businesses, not dependent on NASA or any other government for funds. When asked about private spaceflights, Musk was somewhat hesitant to go into detail. He mentioned taking paying customers to the ISS for joint stays. The Russians, in partnership with a company called Space Adventures, operated a similar business, taking adventurous people, such as gaming magnate Richard Garriott and Iranian-American businesswomen Anousheh Ansari on trips to the ISS.

One can imagine both SpaceX and Boeing taking passengers on stand-alone orbital jaunts. If people are willing to pay a lot of money to go on suborbital barnstorming flights on the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo and the Blue Origin New Shepard they will be willing to shell out even more for a few orbits around the Earth.

The big test of the new commercial spacecraft will be their role in servicing private space stations. Bigelow, which has an experimental module, and other companies, like Axiom Space, are designing commercial space stations that could replace the ISS. In fact, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineApollo 11: How millennials can grasp the greatest event ever — for now Hillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction NASA: Plan to send US back to the moon may be delayed without private rockets MORE is counting on private space stations to free the space agency from supporting the International Space Station so it can concentrate on exploring the moon. Mars and beyond. Congress is skeptical and would like to extend the ISS all the way to 2030, past the current end date of 2024. Of course, Congress used to be skeptical of the ISS, almost killing the project twice in the 1990s. It was distrustful of the commercial spacecraft, underfunding the effort for its first few years. Both are long forgotten in the euphoria of success.

No doubt, if private companies build space stations serviced by private spacecraft around the time people are preparing to return to the moon, the skeptics will forget those misgivings, as well. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”