The new American-made space capsule, Dragon, launched on March 2nd from the Kennedy Space Center on a test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), where it successfully docked the following day.
The capsule is a designed as a free-flying craft capable of transporting both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. The single passenger on board the test flight was a life-sized mannequin dubbed Ripley, in honor of Sigourney Weaver’s character from the “Alien” film franchise.
This marks the first time a launch has been made from U.S. soil since NASA discontinued their space shuttle program in 2011. Upon reaching the ISS, the capsule autonomously attached itself without the assistance of the station’s robotic arm to guide it into place.
The six-day demo went off without a hitch, with the Dragon splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean upon it’s re-entry to Earth on March 8th. The capsule’s return was met with cheers and applause from SpaceX employees watching at the company’s headquarters in California.
A private spaceflight company founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX works under contract with NASA to construct and operate crew capsules to ship astronauts to the space station and back. NASA has given $8 million to SpaceX and the Boeing aircraft company to construct and crew the space shuttles.
SpaceX’s Dragon is the first privately owned spacecraft to travel to the ISS.
For the last eight years NASA has sent their astronauts up to the orbital outpost in Russian rockets. Cost for passage onboard the Russian Soyuz craft has risen to astronomical heights; current pricing is at $82 million per seat.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has expressed hope of once again launching American astronauts on American-made rockets by year’s end.
R. Eric Jones, Co-Chair and Assistant Professor of Aviation and Transportation Studies, feels that the accomplishment of Dragon’s flight marks not only the beginning of a new age in space travel, but in business ventures.
"I think [the] U.S. is going to eventually be-it's going to lead the charge into the next space race. But the space race won't be between countries or nation-states, it's going to be between companies,” said Jones.
Two other such Aerospace companies looking to explore the outer reaches of space are Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, developed the New Shepard, a rocket capable of vertically landing itself back on Earth for repeated use. The reusability of the rockets majorly cuts down on the cost of sending people into orbit.
“When you look at expendable rockets today, the cost of propellant is only about 1 percent of the cost of the mission,” Bezos said in a 2016 interview with Smithsonian magazine. “The big costs come from throwing that aerospace-grade hardware away.
With reusability, in theory, you can see a path to lowering the cost of access to space by a factor of 100.”
Bezos and Blue Origins intend to launch suborbital space tours. The New Shepard will blast off at a speed of Mach 3 crossing the Karman line, the internationally recognized boundary of space, giving tourists a wonderous view of planet Earth, then return to the surface. The entire trip would take 11 minutes from launch to land.
Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company within the Virgin Group that seeks to create “the world’s first commercial spaceline.” Having finally reached space in Dec. 2018, the company plans to start taking people up on July 20th, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Tickets are currently priced at $250,000 apiece.