SpaceX’s Upcoming NASA Launch Heralds Rise of Space Commerce

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The commercialization of space is nearing a crucial milestone as Elon Musk’s SpaceX prepares to ferry four astronauts to the International Space Station — a mission that offers a peek into a future in which multiple launch companies provide business and tourism services in low-earth orbit.

SpaceX’s first regular ferry flight to the orbiting lab is set to leave Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 7:27 p.m. on Sunday, following a successful test with two astronauts earlier this year. The latest mission, called Crew-1, is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co. nearly $7 billion in contracts to build new commercial space taxis.

While SpaceX and Boeing push ahead, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. is planning to resume ticket sales next year for space trips after a flight by its billionaire founder targeted for early 2021. And Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin said in October that it needed “just a couple more flights” before it’s ready to take people into space.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the first customer for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, but Musk’s company is planning on adding many more. Foreign governments seeking a human spaceflight program are one possibility; wealthy tourists are another.

Also expected to ride on the Dragon are Russian cosmonauts, whose country’s Soyuz craft has been the only way to get to the space station since the U.S. Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. The first Dragon flight with Russian cosmonauts could occur late next year, NASA’s commercial crew manager, Steve Stich, said Friday at a news conference.

Virus Tests

The Crew-1 mission is set to fly two days after NASA officials determined that Musk, who may be infected with coronavirus, had no physical interactions with key personnel.

Musk tweeted late Thursday that he’d tested positive and also negative for Covid-19 in four tests, and was experiencing mild cold symptoms. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. was sending its president, Gwynne Shotwell, to Florida to observe the launch, the Washington Post reported.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will also attend, his office said.

Docking at the space station is planned for 11 p.m. on Nov. 16. The next backup date for the mission is Nov. 18, followed by Nov. 19 and 20.

Beyond becoming the U.S. space agency’s first regular commercial launch, the Crew-1 mission is also the first human orbital flight licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The regulator is assuming responsibility for public safety because the flight will be conducted by a commercial company.

If anything goes awry, the National Transportation Safety Board would become the lead investigator, as it is with other commercial aviation accidents.

In late May, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley rode the Dragon to the space station on a test flight and returned in early August.

In the Crew-1 mission, Commander Michael Hopkins, 51, an Air Force colonel and test pilot, will make his second trip to the space station, seven years after his first. He’ll be joined by three others on the mission:

  • Shannon Walker, 55, a physicist and Houston native, will serve her second stint on the orbiting lab.
  • Victor Glover, 44, a Navy pilot from California, will be taking his first flight to space. He’ll be the first Black astronaut to stay on the space station for a full six-month rotation, according to NASA.
  • Soichi Noguchi, 55, a Japanese astronaut and aeronautical engineer, has the most space experience among the crew and will become one of the very few people to leave the Earth on three vehicles: Russia’s Soyuz, the Space Shuttle, and the SpaceX Dragon.

— With assistance by Alan Levin

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