SpaceX Launch America Sets NASA's Path to the Moon and Mars in 'Huge Step Forward' For U.S. Space Exploration

After suffering a delay due to poor weather, the historic SpaceX and NASA mission known as Crew Dragon Demo-2 is now aiming to launch this Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 3:22 p.m. EDT. But what are the specific goals of the mission and the wider implications of the launch, which NASA says will usher in a "new era" of human spaceflight?

The mission, which represents the first crewed launch from American soil in nearly a decade, will see NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This is the final flight test for the Crew Dragon—SpaceX's crew transportation system—which has already completed a demonstration flight to the ISS, albeit unmanned. This marks the first time that astronauts will get to test out the spacecraft in orbit.

NASA says that the latest mission has several implications for its future plans as the agency looks to send humans deeper into space over the coming decades.

"This certification and regular operation of Crew Dragon will enable NASA to continue the important research and technology investigations taking place onboard the station, which benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon and Mars starting with the agency's Artemis program, which will land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface in 2024," NASA said in a statement.

The mission—which forms part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP)—is also significant because it marks the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 that NASA astronauts will launch from American soil, on American-made rockets and spacecraft.

After the loss of the shuttle, NASA had to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS, paying the Russian space agency Roscosmos an average of more than $80 million per seat.

But this era of reliance appears to be coming to an end. The main goal of the CCP—a collaboration with the American aerospace industry initiated in 2010—was to develop launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and the ISS.

"We as a nation have not had our own access to the International Space Station for nine years," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference earlier this month. "This is a very exciting time."

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
A pelican flies as the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft attached is seen on Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 28, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As part of the CCP, NASA awarded SpaceX more than $3bn to fund development of the Crew Dragon, while handing its competitor Boeing nearly $5bn to develop their own CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which will also take astronauts to the ISS. Its first manned flight is scheduled for next year.

"It's a very significant event that we're now, once again, launching Americans from the U.S. and that's a great thing, that's a goal that we've been aiming at for a long time," NASA's chief historian, Bill Barry, told Newsweek. "Putting a new human spacecraft into service is a pretty rare event. But to me the greater significance of this is that it marks the start of a major tipping point in human access to space."

"There are lots of strategic reasons why the U.S. should have independent human access to space, but the immediate issue is that our huge investment in the ISS relies on just one spacecraft for crew transportation. It was always envisioned by the ISS partnership that there would be at least two ways to get crews—and multiple ways to get cargo—to the station. Having only one option could be problematic if there were some significant problem that grounded the Soyuz spacecraft or launch vehicle for an extended period of time," he said.

Furthermore, when the decision was made to end the shuttle program, the United States and Russia considered each other "good allies," Barry said.

"Obviously, the geopolitical context has changed a bit, and that makes things a little less amenable to that kind of approach," he said. "It is important that the U.S. has an independent capability of being able to launch people to space. And we're not only going to have one spacecraft, we're going to have two real soon, with Dragon and Starliner cruising back and forth from the space station as a commercial service."

In addition to the Crew Dragon and Starliner, Barry said that these will soon be joined by NASA's Orion spacecraft, which is designed to carry astronauts to the moon as part of the Artemis program, and ultimately Mars. The spacecraft, which is due for its first test launch in 2021, is made up of two modules designed by Lockheed Martin and Airbus.

"So, this makes the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission the first crewed flight of the new wave of human spacecraft and over the course of the next year or two, we'll go from two active human spacecraft (Soyuz and Shenzhou) to (at least) five—with three of those being operated from the U.S. Space has never been so accessible to humanity," Barry said.

"It's been a wait, but i think it's been a wait that's well worth having because now we're going to be in a much more robust environment where we have a whole ecosystem of different human spacecraft that can do lots different things," he said. "It's a huge step forward and we're really at a turning point in terms of giving access to space when SpaceX conducts this launch."

Privatizing space

The latest launch also represents a major milestone for the commercial spaceflight industry, in what has traditionally been a field dominated by government space agencies.

"NASA has had a relatively flat budget since the end of the Apollo program. And while advances in technology have allowed the space agency to do amazing things over the last 40 years, building and operating human spacecraft is very expensive," Barry said. "In 2004 President George W. Bush announced a new policy of human exploration of deep space and this was ratified by strong bi-partisan support in Congress.

"NASA needs a new spacecraft (Orion) and launch vehicle (Space Launch System) to accomplish those goals, but we also need to continue the research on the ISS that will enable deep space exploration."

Rather than meeting the needs of ISS transportation by developing an in-house system for that purpose, in addition to Orion and SLS, it made sense for NASA to turn to a partnership with industry to buy ISS crew transportation services, from SpaceX and Boeing, so that the space agency could focus engineering development efforts and funds on the goals of the Artemis Program—to return to the moon and go to Mars.

"This launch represents the realization of a decades' long dream to migrate part of human space exploration to private companies," former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino told Newsweek. "Up until now it has only been governments that have launched people into space. From now on it will be private companies as well.

"Similar to when the first commercial airline flights began, I think the world will be changed forever. Watching the launch will be exciting, but understanding the passion and dedication of the thousands of people that made it possible will be inspiring. It will be a blast of good news which is needed at this difficult time."

Hurley—who was also the pilot of the last ever shuttle mission in July 2011—said that the latest launch was a pivotal moment in sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

"The days of Apollo are over where one country or government makes this huge financial and technological effort to go beyond low-Earth orbit. I just don't think that is on the cards for the future. I think it's more of an international and a public-private effort [that's going] to get us to the moon or Mars," he said in a video message.

"This is the first time we've done this in a sense, where we've worked hand-in-hand with a private company, and given them the lion's share of responsibility for producing the vehicle, and then going to fly it. It's going to be a shared effort to get us to the moon and especially to Mars successfully and this is the first part of that. Hopefully, the lessons learned from this program good and bad will be brought forward for Artemis and then the ultimate goal of going to Mars."

Behnken also said how the new era of expanded cooperation between NASA and private companies will prove to be beneficial for the future.

"I think we'll look back on this as a new era in space exploration. When I came into the astronaut office, we had a space shuttle, and we worked towards retiring that over the first decade of my career at NASA," he said in the video message.

"Now, we're in a time when we've got multiple vehicles under development all flying really close together. It's a great time from a space exploration timeframe just to see all that happening, and it's [the result] of this nurturing environment of being able to pull in a wider group of people who can contribute towards human spaceflight."

The last test flight

After lifting off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at the Space Center, the astronauts will verify that the spacecraft's various systems—such as the maneuvering thrusters and thermal control systems—are working as intended once in orbit.

As the spacecraft approaches the ISS and conducts its autonomous docking procedure, the astronauts will closely monitor proceedings. They also have the ability to take control of the spacecraft manually.

"We'll make sure all the systems are working for future missions," Behnken said in a video message. "The SpaceX vehicle has a lot of features and capabilities that hopefully we never have to utilize in a real mission. But Doug, and I will make sure that they are all ready just in case we do, and that's everything from a response to a fire on board to flying close to the International Space Station manually, instead of letting the computer do it."

Once the spacecraft has successfully docked with the space station, the astronauts will join the ISS Expedition Crew 63. While the exact duration of their mission has yet to be determined, they will use their time to perform further tests on the Crew Dragon as well as conducting other scientific research with the ISS crew.

After completing their mission on the ISS, Hurley and Behnken will re-enter the Crew Dragon and fly back to Earth, splashing down off the Atlantic Coast of Florida. This will mark the final step before NASA can certify the Crew Dragon for future, routine flights to the ISS.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Bill Barry.