Industry Insights

U.S. Launch Signals Agency and Commercial Collaboration

2020-05-27  |  5 min read 

In 2011, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that it was retiring its Space Shuttle program. Although U.S. astronauts continued participating in programs at the International Space Station (ISS), they traveled there on Russian space vehicles. In 2014, NASA contracted both SpaceX and Boeing to take over these transports. SpaceX was ready first with its Falcon 9 rocket, which is now scheduled to bring two U.S. astronauts to the ISS from NASA’s historic Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In addition to marking the first human spaceflight from the U.S. in nine years, this event welcomes a new age of commercial/agency collaboration.

The goal of the mission, labeled NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight, is to send astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS. According to NASA, Demo-2 will be SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon craft and its first test with astronauts aboard. This final test flight prior to NASA certification will provide data on the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon and ground systems, and in-orbit, docking, and landing operations.

Falcon 9’s reusability is key to SpaceX being able to make space travel more affordable and accessible. According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 two-stage rocket was created to transport people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond. The reusability of this orbital class rocket allows SpaceX to re-fly the most expensive parts of the rocket, thereby reducing costs.

The path to reusability was not always smooth. In 2014, SpaceX reportedly achieved a controlled ocean landing in its fourth controlled-landing attempt. This was Falcon 9’s ninth launch. The end of 2015 saw the first successful landing of a Falcon 9 rocket on a SpaceX pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Since then, rocket reuse has become more typical for the company as it sends cargo to the ISS. Although it is initially flying astronauts for NASA, SpaceX's future passengers expand beyond the space agency – especially as it sets its sights on Mars.

While the commercialization of the space industry has been occurring for some time, many people initially viewed commercial opportunities as separate from governments and space agencies. Talk of the “NewSpace” economy often centers on emerging commercial/industrial applications, such as fifth generation (5G) telecommunications, smart cars and cities, and the Internet of Space. NewSpace also includes lower earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, such as CubeSats. For NASA, partnering with the private sector instead of government subcontractors has reportedly reduced costs and development time while still enabling access to the newest technology developments – and their benefits.

With this launch, NASA and SpaceX bring the U.S. back to having human launch capabilities. As SpaceX continues its work to make space travel accessible, more people will be able to dream of one day being an astronaut. In the meantime, we can all watch the exciting research findings from the ISS and await NASA’s Artemis programs, whereby the agency and its commercial partners plan to send the first woman and the next man to the moon by 2024.

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