SpaceX Rocket Launch Could Start New Era of Space Exploration

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via Wikimedia Commons

A simulation of the Crew Dragon docking at the International Space Station.

Katie Buelt, Features Editor

For plenty of people, space exploration and rocket launches are phenomenons that exist mainly in science fiction movies. However, Elon Musk and his company SpaceX are looking to usher in a new era of human space launches that hasn’t been seen since last century’s space race. The Crew Dragon spacecraft is set to take off with two NASA astronauts at its helm, making it the first manned space launch by a private company, as well as the first time NASA astronauts have left earth in nearly a decade. The rocket was set to launch on Wednesday, May 27, but was moved to May 30 due to inclement weather conditions. All went well on this secondary launch date, and the Crew Dragon docked at the International Space Station, where the astronauts will spend several weeks, on the morning of May 31.

While SpaceX has used other spacecrafts to make cargo shipments to the International Space Station, this is the first time humans have been sent off-planet by the company. Experts say this could have massive implications for the privatization of space travel. For the past decade, the US has been paying Russia tens of millions of dollars for NASA astronauts to board their spacecrafts for passage to the space station. Now, with the Crew Dragon mission a success, NASA could potentially rely more heavily on companies like SpaceX for the transportation of astronauts. Additionally, according to the New York Times, the company has made big promises to expand their business and begin selling seats on their shuttles to companies, other countries, or even tourists, in the near future. Beyond the possibilities this launch could open up, this spacecraft also differs greatly from those used by NASA in the past. The rocket is fully autonomous, and the astronauts only control the craft manually for a short time. The shuttle’s control center is also made up of touch screens specially designed to work with the astronaut’s gloved space suits.

So who, exactly, did NASA choose to send on this groundbreaking mission? Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have been astronauts since 2000, and they each have two space shuttle missions to their names. They both have experience as military test pilots, and, despite their long runs at NASA, this is the first mission in which they worked together. NASA assigned them to the SpaceX flight in 2018.

Even with history being made, however, fear of the coronavirus still loomed large as the Crew Dragon prepared for takeoff. Behnken and Hurley have been in self-isolation since May 13, and they have been tested for the virus several times to ensure that they won’t bring the illness to the space station. But the astronauts aren’t the only ones SpaceX and NASA are worried about. Despite urging by NASA administrators to watch the launch from home, massive crowds came to watch the launch, with several nearby hotels telling the New York Times they were fully booked in the days ahead. Wayne Ivey, sheriff of a local county, continually encouraged people to view the historic launch in person despite discouragement from NASA, potentially adding to the crowd size.

Crowds or not, Saturday’s lanuch was certainly one for the ages, and it could have major implications for the future of space travel. Whether it be research or tourism, experts seem to agree that a great deal of space exploration is in our future, and the launch of the Crew Dragon was just one of many steps we have taken to reach that goal. As NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein put it, “We need to have the capability of accessing space — not just for NASA, but for all of humanity.”