SpaceX on the verge of sending astronauts into orbit

If Elon Musk’s SpaceX succeeds in sending two astronauts into orbit for the first time this week, it will do more than just boost the bragging rights of one of the world’s best-known billionaires.

As the first human test flight on a commercial rocket to reach the International Space Station, it will also signal a breakthrough for the private space industry as a whole, and an important moment in the opening up of low earth orbit to the commercial sector.

The first manned test for the Crew Dragon capsule, carrying two Nasa astronauts on top of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday morning.

If the flight to the ISS is successful, Nasa is expected to buy four seats on a follow-up flight later this year, the first time its astronauts will have become paying passengers on a commercially owned and operated space vehicle.

This week’s launch marks the moment when the private sector starts to lift humans off the face of the planet “reliably and cheaply”, said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, the competition which led to the first private manned flight to the edge of space 16 years ago. “It’s the first, fully commercially built, entrepreneurial capability,” he said. “What Elon Musk has done is nothing short of extraordinary, outpacing the US government-backed industries, Russia and China.”

Many of the technologies that SpaceX is relying on were pioneered by government space programmes over the past 60 years, meaning that the company is “standing on the shoulders of giants”, said Greg Autry, a former White House liaison to Nasa and an expert on the private space sector.

He compared the commercialisation of human space flight with the moment when the internet, which was created by the US Defense department, was handed over to the private sector. That makes the test flight a “tipping point we’ve been waiting for in the commercial space industry for a number of years”, he said.

Nasa, which commissioned both SpaceX and Boeing seven years ago to build human launch systems, is counting on commercial incentives and market competition to drive down the price of getting into space. It has estimated that the $400m SpaceX spent to develop its Falcon 9 rocket, which has become the workhorse for lifting cargo to the ISS, was only a tenth what it would have cost Nasa itself to build a similar rocket.

Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 and the US was forced to buy seats on Russian rockets to propel its astronauts to the ISS, the cost of getting into space has risen sharply. Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, paid $20m in 2001 for a ride to the ISS on a Russian rocket. The price of a seat has now ballooned to more than $90m.

A competitive commercial market could quickly push that price back below $50m, said Mr Autry. Boeing’s rival space capsule suffered a setback earlier this year because of software glitches but is expected to make its first manned test launch next year. Other companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, a Californian company that has built a space vehicle with wings, also hope to cash in.

As competition increases and the process for mounting human flights becomes more streamlined, the price for a trip into orbit could fall below $10m over the next decade, Mr Autry predicted.

All of this remains theoretical, however, until private companies prove they can launch humans into orbit safely, and return them to earth. The thought of entrusting astronauts to a fully commercial rocket company was jarring for many in the US space programme when it was first proposed in 2011, said Janet Kavandi, a former Nasa astronaut and now an executive at Sierra Nevada.

Nasa worked hard to make sure companies such as SpaceX are ready, she added. That meant doing everything from sharing the data from its Columbia shuttle disaster to teaching them everything it had learnt about crew survivability, down to the way seats are attached to the craft. By opting for a capsule, rather than a winged craft such as the Space Shuttle, SpaceX has also reduced the complexity of its launches.

Technical illustration showing some of the details of spaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 launcher

Many in the private space industry believe demand is pent up to support the new human launch companies in their early years, though few are prepared to guess at the ultimate size of the market.

Countries that have space programmes but don’t have their own launch systems are already waiting to buy seats on private rockets, said Laura Forczyk at Astralytical, a US space consultancy. A boom in space tourism is likely to follow, she added, particularly if prices fall as fast as some expect.

Nasa, which objected to Mr Tito’s private flight nearly two decades ago, has since become a strong backer of space tourism as a way to share some of its own costs and shift more of its budget to reach the moon and, eventually, Mars. Last year it went as far as to publish a detailed price list for use of its facilities on the ISS, including $11,250 a day for private astronauts to access the station’s life support system and toilet.

The next step in commercialising space will need more accommodation for private astronauts, particularly since the ISS is due to be retired sometime this decade. The first private company to launch a module designed to attach to the ISS, Axiom, hopes to launch in 2024, on the way to a fully freestanding space station. The full potential of low earth orbit also depends on the private sector seizing on the chance to carry out materials research and manufacturing in zero-gravity — an idea that has barely been tested.

For Mr Musk, meanwhile, the first private trip some 250 miles up to the ISS is only a small step to a far more ambitious goal. Turning humanity into an interplanetary species is still his overriding ambition in life, said Mr Diamandis. “It means that we now have an entrepreneurial company that will also get us to the moon, and eventually to Mars,” he said.

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