On May 30, 2020 3:22 pm, EDT, the private company SpaceX successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center a crewed space capsule into space. The capsule, named Dragon, docked today with the International Space Station and made history as the newest generation of reusable spacecraft to enter service.
The Dragon is light years ahead of the old Apollo space capsules, the retired space shuttles and the Soyuz space capsules with its many automated and updated functions. For instance, its docking with the International Space Station was fully automated with its crew, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, seeming to be more like passengers though they are capable of assuming manual control if needed. SpaceX’s rocket, the Falcon 9, which launched the Dragon into orbit is also revolutionary in that it is resusable and successfully landed back on Earth after separating from the space capsule after the Dragon achieved orbit. The reusable feature of the Falcon 9 is literally something out of an old pulp sci-fi tale which featured vertical rockets taking off and landing.
The successful test of this spaceflight marks the first time a private company was able to launch and operate spacecraft with humans into space. This also heralds the next step into space exploration. As many know, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, has an ambitious vision to turn humanity into a true space-faring race with plans to land humans on Mars during this decade and establishing a colony on the red planet. Yesterday’s launch of the Dragon is just the first step in Musk’s grand scheme.
But in order to get to Mars and beyond, Elon Musk and NASA had to prove the SpaceX program was feasible. After the space shuttles were retired in 2011, the United States had to rely on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station until a replacement vehicle for the space shuttles were built. It was determined it would be more expedient and cost effective if private companies developed and built space vehicles and the result was the Commercial Crew Program. The idea was that competition between companies encouraged innovation and cost savings and would free NASA to focus on deep space exploration. At the same time, the Commercial Crew Program enables NASA to be less reliant on Russia and other nations as companies handle routine orbital operations, such as ferrying crew and supplies to the International Space Station.
Of course, this test cannot just be a one-off. The resuable spacecraft needs to repeatedly and safely launch from the Kennedy Space Center and return to Earth. There will be mishaps and setbacks, such as when the SpaceX prototype rocket, Starship, exploded on May 29 in Texas during a test. For now, SpaceX will concentrate on ensuring the Falcon 9 and Dragon can become a workhorse in the same way the space shuttles were. It is also certain that repeated success will allow SpaceX and NASA to push the boundaries and embolden both to return to the Moon and beyond.
It was certainly heartening in spite of recent crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and riots, humanity is able to demonstrate the ability to rise beyond such strife and take its place among the stars with these next steps.