SpaceX makes history by transporting NASA astronauts to ISS and back, here's what we have learned so far

SpaceX makes history by transporting NASA astronauts to ISS and back, here's what we have learned so far
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

SpaceX scripted history by carrying two astronauts back home from the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first private player to do so. The passengers safely landed in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida's Pensacola after spending over two months in orbit. "Welcome back to planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX," SpaceX's mission control told Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. They became the first astronauts to ride SpaceX's Crew Dragon to the ISS and back. They named the spacecraft Enadavour after reaching the space station.

The mission was a technology demonstration by SpaceX, meaning it was only meant to test the company's capabilities. Next, the private player will carry out its first operational flight ferrying three NASA astronauts — Michael S Hopkins, Victor J Glover and Shannon Walker — along with one Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, to the space station by late September, according to reports.


And then, in February 2021, Crew Dragon has been tasked with carrying two NASA astronauts, Robert S Kimbrough and K Megan McArthur along with Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet on board.

Last week, NASA wrote that it would examine the performance of the spacecraft throughout the test flight and provide certification in six weeks. Launched in 2002, SpaceX set ambitious goals of making space travel affordable. After successfully carrying astronauts to the ISS and back, the company has its eyes set on Mars. Here is what its success has taught us:


NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley land (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Private players can make a mark

SpaceX's success has broken the monopoly once held by government space organizations. Until 2011, NASA carried astronauts to the ISS on its space shuttle. After their launch vehicle retired that year, the space agency has had to rely on Russia's expensive Soyuz rockets. To develop an indigenous space vehicle, the Obama Administration supported commercial space flight, awarding funding to two private players in 2014: SpaceX and Boeing. While the former has already safely brought the astronauts back home, the latter is yet to test its technology.


Bringing down costs by reusing hardware

NASA approved the reuse of Crew Dragon capsules and rockets, allowing the company to keep the costs of spaceflight low. Sending astronauts by either SpaceX or Boeing could cost more than $20 million a seat, compared to about $90 million charged by Soyuz. "In this case, SpaceX has proposed to reuse future Falcon 9 and/or Crew Dragon systems or components for NASA missions to the International Space Station because they believe it will be beneficial from a safety and/or cost standpoint," NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told SpaceNews.


Behnken and Hurley arrive on SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft after spending 64 days in space (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Opening up space exploration

NASA is not buying SpaceX's technology, hence opening up avenues for commercial activities, including corporate research and sightseeing. "We don't want to purchase, own, and operate the hardware the way we used to," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said during a NASA TV broadcast.
He added: "This is the next era in human spaceflight, where NASA gets to be the customer. We want to be a strong customer. We want to be a great partner. But we don't want to be the only ones that are operating with humans in space."


Reusable technology to carry humans to Mars 

Shortly after SpaceX carried Bob and Doug to ISS two months ago, Musk decided to focus on his next project: Starship, a reusable super heavy-lift space vehicle. According to an email circulated on June 6 and accessed by CNBC, Musk told his staff: "Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship."
Only last year, Musk revealed the prototype of the Starship. The spacecraft is expected to carry about 100 people in one go on to Mars and other space bodies. The goal is to set up a human base on the Red Planet.


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