Yet that moment is here. This afternoon, if the weather cooperates, SpaceX will attempt to launch two NASA astronauts from Cape Canaveral on the space agency’s behalf.
Even without a global pandemic as a backdrop, the stakes are high. The astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, are seasoned space travelers with four shuttle flights between them (and, in a delightful twist, are also best friends). But SpaceX has never launched people, and NASA has never given this much responsibility to a contractor before. Americans last flew on a brand-new spacecraft in 1981.
A successful journey would mark the beginning of a new epoch in America’s space program. NASA has outsourced perhaps its most consequential task: delivering human beings beyond the boundary that separates us from the rest of the universe, and then bringing them home. And it has given the job not to a fellow spacefaring nation, but to a domestic contractor that has been flying rockets to orbit for just over a decade. Hurley and Behnken will be the first to fly on a truly private spacecraft, designed from top to bottom by engineers who work for Musk, not the space agency. It is a grand experiment, but it is also the future of spaceflight, where commercial companies do the work of flying people beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
If the mission succeeds, SpaceX is poised to capture the national imagination as NASA once did. If something goes wrong, the next era of American human spaceflight might end before it gets a real chance to start.
If the story of American human spaceflight were narrowed to a single point on a map, expressed by a simple set of coordinates, it would fall on this stretch of sandy coastline in central Florida. This is where the Mercury astronauts, the first Americans to reach space, took off; where the Gemini astronauts left to practice high-flying maneuvers over Earth’s atmosphere, and the Apollo moonwalkers braced themselves for the journey of a lifetime; where the space shuttles launched, and where they were recovered when crews were tragically lost. For more than half a century, if NASA astronauts wanted to leave the planet, they did it from Cape Canaveral’s shores.
In 2011, an American space shuttle rose elegantly into the air over the coast. Spectators watched from below in awe as the spacecraft soared away from them, only no one was inside. The shuttle wasn’t going to space.
The country’s shuttles were placed atop airplanes that year and flown, the old-fashioned way, to new homes in museums across the U.S. where they would go on display. After three decades and 135 missions, the program was over, and America’s astronauts had to find another way to reach space.
For the past nine years, NASA astronauts have launched with Russian cosmonauts, squeezed shoulder to shoulder in a small capsule that takes off from Kazakhstan. Together, they fly to humankind’s only off-world home, the ISS. Although the former Cold War rivals share the station, the Americans haven’t been keen to rely on the Russians for a ride. After all, shouldn’t the nation that landed people on the moon be able to send them into the space above Earth?