Elon Musk’s SpaceX just launched the first operational crewed flight into orbital space, following up on its successful test flight several months ago and bringing us one step closer to private commercial space travel.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Crew-1 capsule, seated on top of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, took off on Sunday night with four astronauts on board — three from NASA and one from Japan’s JAXA — for a return flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch follows its crewed test flight last May, for which two astronauts successfully launched, docked at ISS for two months, then safely returned to Earth with its crew.
Sunday’s flight was the first operational one — that is, the first flight since NASA certified the capsule for spaceflight, following its successful crewed test — in SpaceX’s contract with NASA to send astronauts to and from ISS, which both the company and the government agency hope will be a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship.
"It is not over. This was a beautiful launch... but remember, this is a six-month mission, and it's the first of many."— NASA (@NASA) November 16, 2020
Administrator @JimBridenstine looking toward the future of the Crew-1 mission and the @Commercial_Crew program. #LaunchAmerica pic.twitter.com/7cKcu5mM1J
But it’s also a relationship born out of necessity. The United States retired its own Space Shuttle program in 2011, and has had to rely on Russian rockets to travel to the ISS ever since. Rather than building its own spacecraft, NASA decided to invest billions in private companies like SpaceX to develop vehicles that would escort its supplies and crews instead.
Using $100 million of his PayPal payout, Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, predating his Tesla car company by more than a year. As the story goes, Musk wanted to put plants on Mars, but it was too expensive to acquire the rockets to do so. So he started his own company, SpaceX, to see if he couldn’t get those costs down. In early years, the venture seemed destined for failure: Between 2006 and 2008, the first three launches of its Falcon 1 rocket failed. But the fourth rocket succeeded later in 2008, and the fifth carried a satellite into orbit in 2009.
After this, and with some funding from NASA, SpaceX accelerated development of the Falcon 9 rocket, which first took flight in 2010. This two-stage rocket powered by nine Merlin engines has now launched nearly 100 times, carrying satellites into orbit and supplies to ISS; now, it’s brought people to ISS as well. It’s failed just twice: once in flight in 2015 and once on the launch pad in 2016. It’s also the first and only orbital rocket that’s partially reusable — the booster section lands itself back on Earth after launch — which significantly cuts down on operating costs.
There’s also the Falcon Heavy, a heavy-lift launch vehicle that looks like a Falcon 9 rocket with two Falcon 9 boosters strapped to the sides. On its 2018 maiden voyage, it sent a Tesla into space, complete with a dummy driver clad in a spacesuit. It’s still up there somewhere. On the second Falcon Heavy launch, all three rockets returned safely to Earth. After the third and most recent launch, the Falcon Heavy earned certification from the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, which is part of the United States Space Force.
SpaceX then became the first private company to send a crew into orbital space with the Crew Dragon Demo-2 test flight, which was operated by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.
With the successful test flight under its belt, SpaceX and NASA had the green light to begin operational flights to and from ISS. The first of those was Sunday’s launch, with a crew of NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael S. Hopkins, and Shannon Walker, and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi. SpaceX astronauts in both the test and operational missions have been escorted to their launches in Tesla cars, both giving Musk’s electric car company some nice cross-promotion and demonstrating just how commercial our new era of space travel has become.
Impressive as the success of SpaceX has been, Elon Musk still has his sights set on greater things. The company’s most ambitious project yet, the SpaceX Starship, is underway. Intended to be a fully reusable, stainless steel, heavy-lift launch vehicle that would tower over the iconic Saturn V rocket developed for the NASA Apollo missions, the Starship is supposed to go to the moon, Mars, “and beyond.” In fact, NASA has already included the Starship on its list of commercial launch systems for the Artemis missions, which are scheduled to land a man and a woman on the moon by 2024.
The successful crewed flights set up SpaceX for an even brighter future. The company has become NASA’s preferred launch partner and now handles about two-thirds of the agency’s launches under government contracts worth billions. SpaceX also offers a “rideshare” option that will carry smaller payloads to orbit for as little as $1 million. The company also just raised more than $1.9 billion in fresh funding to keep developing its Crew Dragon capsule, Starship program, and Starlink satellite business. A second operational crewed flight to ISS is already planned for spring 2021. SpaceX also hopes to sell seats to (presumably wealthy) space tourists someday.
SpaceX, now valued at about $46 billion, rose to prominence after NASA fell from grace. The federal space agency has to rely on private companies to send its astronauts into space after NASA ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. At that time, NASA shifted its attention to Mars and Earth science and away from space shuttles and a return trip to the moon. Under President Trump, however, NASA has turned back again to putting astronauts back on the moon with the launch of its Artemis program in 2017. The incoming Biden administration may change things up once again.
Suffice it to say, there’s been some shifting of priorities at NASA. In the years since the Space Shuttle program ended, American astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian rockets to get to and from the ISS at a cost of $86 million each and an unquantifiable amount of national pride. (SpaceX, by contrast, is estimated to charge $55 million per astronaut for these round-trip flights.) This arrangement with Russia is not supposed to last forever.
Over the past decade, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has awarded billions to a handful of private companies to develop crewed space vehicles to carry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. Rather than use private companies as contractors that fulfill government orders, as it did in the past, NASA gave private companies funding to develop their own commercial efforts, which NASA could then use for its own ends.
That means space exploration is now a business, and many of its biggest innovations are coming from the private sector, which is partially subsidized by public money. Through these arrangements, Boeing has developed its Starliner capsule, which has no launch date yet and has been beset with difficulties, and SpaceX built the Crew Dragon capsule. And NASA is just fine with this, as the new partnerships shifts some of the cost of developing and constructing spacecraft onto private industry. And it’s not just companies that make spaceships; NASA recently awarded Nokia the right to build a 4G mobile network on the moon as part of its effort to establish a more permanent presence there.
We need to talk about Elon
No discussion of SpaceX would be complete with some hand-wringing over its controversial founder and CEO — Musk himself has made sure of that.
His biographer Ashlee Vance interviewed Musk for Bloomberg as the Demo-2 launch approached. Vance highlighted how Musk has recently made himself a lightning rod of criticism for suggesting that Covid-19 is fake and generally being awful on Twitter.
Even the most fervent Musk hater, of whom there are plenty in the US, has to feel some twinge of pride. At a moment when the American Empire can seem to be in decline, here’s a clear sign that great things remain possible and that humans have much left to achieve. “America is still the land of opportunity more than any other place, for sure,” Musk says, waxing patriotic. “There is definitely no other country where I could have done this—immigrant or not.” That it’s a multibillionaire, Covid-19-truthing, entrepreneurial huckster/hero delivering this message is pretty much perfect for America in 2020.
Vance added that Musk’s “business tactics and behavior can oscillate between infuriating and appalling.”
Indeed. Musk’s Twitter account has 40 million followers, and the tone of his tweets tends to alternate between that of a self-promotional businessman and an angsty teenager. Musk’s tweets alone have gotten him sued by a cave diver and the Securities and Exchange Commission. (He won the first case and settled the second, with an agreement that personally cost him $20 million and his chairmanship of Tesla’s board.)
Just this year, Musk has vowed in a tweet to sell his possessions, after which he tweeted, “My gf … is mad at me.” He also said the price of his own company’s stock was “too high,” named his new child X Æ A-Xii, repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, and forced his Tesla employees to work through it — even defying government orders to reopen a factory early. SpaceX, which is considered critical infrastructure, never stopped.
When Musk did seem to take the pandemic seriously, it was to offer his companies’ assistance in manufacturing ventilators. But that help never really came — although in fairness, neither did the feared nationwide ventilator shortage that prompted those tweets. Musk’s May tweet urging followers to “take the red pill,” a term that has well-known far-right and men’s rights activist connections, got a response from Ivanka Trump, who simply said, “Taken!”
Most recently, Musk appears to have contracted the coronavirus himself, tweeting that he “most likely” had the virus. He complained of “symptoms of a minor cold,” which were apparently treated with DayQuil. But after taking four rapid Covid antigen tests, two of which were positive and two of which were negative, Musk said “something extremely bogus is going on.” He was forced to miss Sunday’s launch and a Twitter user dubbed him “Space Karen” for his multiple complaints about the accuracy of coronavirus tests. “#SpaceKaren” and “Space Karen” trended on the platform afterward. (“Karen” has become a term for entitled white people who become outraged when they don’t get their way in various aspects of life.)
Yet while Musk’s bizarre, attention-seeking behavior may be a turnoff for many, his businesses make enough money and are cool enough to investors that SpaceX and Tesla seem to be succeeding in spite of Musk’s increasingly controversial public image. The US government, however, is not a business, and it has not taken well to Musk’s antics. Along with the SEC’s $20 million fine, NASA investigated and scolded him after he smoked pot while appearing on a podcast in 2018.
Still, SpaceX is undeniably an accomplishment, and its successful crewed launches will be an essential step toward Musk’s plans for the moon or Mars or wherever he ultimately decides to go. At this point, it’s hard to imagine the future of space travel without SpaceX and without Musk.