SpaceX is about to launch its first astronauts, and the stakes for both NASA and Elon Musk's rocket company are epic

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk shake hands after a press briefing on March 2, 2019. The event followed the successful launch of Demo-1: the first mission to launch Crew Dragon, a commercial spaceship designed for astronauts, into orbit.Dave Mosher/Business Insider
  • SpaceX is about to launch its first people into orbit, an experimental flight of its new Crew Dragon spaceship.
  • Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will pilot the mission, called Demo-2, but their safety is not all that's at stake for NASA and SpaceX.
  • SpaceX has big plans for lunar and Mars exploration, yet needs to show it can fly crewed missions before it can hope to achieve its grandest goals.
  • NASA, meanwhile, wants to resurrect crewed US spaceflight for the first time in nearly a decade.
  • The flight also represents a path for NASA to fully staff the International Space Station, end Russia's spaceflight monopoly, and do the space-based research in support of future moon and Mars missions.

Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the hope of inspiring Mars exploration. These days, though, SpaceX is working toward flying people around the moon and later land some on the surface, then moving on to establish Martian cities, drop a million settlers there, and back up the human race.

But if SpaceX is to have any hope of achieving such grand visions, the rocket company must first prove it can safely launch people to and from low-Earth orbit — a stepping stone to all deep-space destinations.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft integrated with a Falcon 9 rocket in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A on May 20, 2020. The vehicle is scheduled to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on May 27.SpaceX via Twitter
This makes the stakes of SpaceX's next rocket launch, a mission called Demo-2, so high. If weather, hardware, and other factors cooperate, the company's Crew Dragon spaceship will lift off on May 27 at 4:33 p.m. ET — and mark SpaceX's first mission with passengers in the company's 18-year history.Advertisement

But it's not just SpaceX with so much of its future plans on the line.

NASA is entrusting SpaceX with the lives of two of its most experienced astronauts: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The duo will pilot Crew Dragon on a roughly 110-day mission.

Through its larger Commercial Crew Program — which lets companies lead the development, construction, launch, and operation of spacecraft — the space agency has also invested more than $3.14 billion in SpaceX to create its new spaceflight capability. NASA has sunk an additional $4.8 billion into Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spaceship system, too.
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But, as with SpaceX, the launch of Demo-2 represents so much more — and it's a big reason why both NASA and the rocket company are pressing to launch the mission in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some of the biggest things at stake.

The first crewed space mission from the US in almost 9 years

Space shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.Dave Mosher
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NASA launched its final space shuttle, Atlantis, in July 2011. After that mission — the 133rd successful flight of the program — the space agency retired its entire fleet of 100-ton orbiters.

Since then, no American rocket and spaceship system has launched astronauts into space, including from US soil.

SpaceX's Demo-2 mission, if successful, would be the first to resurrect US crewed spaceflight — and provide NASA astronauts a path to space from American soil.Advertisement

"This is a new generation, a new era in human spaceflight," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, said during a press briefing on May 1.

The end of Russia's human-spaceflight monopoly

The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-11 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

The US and Russia have cooperated in space since the 1970s, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz test program. So when NASA retired the space shuttle, the agency had at least one path to orbit: Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. (China has spaceships, but NASA can't collaborate with that nation without special permission from Congress.)Advertisement

However, Russia has used its spaceflight monopoly to charge more and more per round-trip ticket for each NASA astronaut. The cost has risen from about $21 million in 2008 (before the shuttle retired) to more than $90 million per seat on a planned October 2020 flight.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon, meanwhile, is projected to cost $55 million per seat, according to NASA's inspector general. The competition should also force Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, to lower its prices. NASA would also be in a position to barter and trade seats with a human-rated SpaceX ship.

"We see a day when Russian cosmonauts can launch on American rockets," Bridenstine said on May 1. "Remember, half of the International Space Station is Russian."Advertisement

Better US access to $100 billion investment in space

An illustration comparing the size of the International Space Station to an American football field.NASA

The agency has invested about $100 billion in taxpayer dollars into the International space station, which orbits Earth from about 250 miles above the planet. NASA spends about $3 billion to $4 billion a year to maintain the floating facility, supply it with cargo, and run experiments on it. The microgravity environment enables unique pharmaceutical, materials science, astronomical, medical, and other research. Astronauts are required to run most of the experiments, but the ISS has run a veritable skeleton crew since July 2011. That's because Soyuz can seat only three people, yet flies two NASA astronauts at most — a huge cut from the space shuttle's seven seats for astronauts.Advertisement

SpaceX's Crew Dragon, by no coincidence, can fly seven people at a time. Demo-2's successful launch would represent a major step toward fully staffing the ISS — and having astronauts spending less time fixing toilets and more time running laboratory experiments.

"The International Space Station is a critical capability for the United States of America. Having access to it is also critical," Bridenstine said. "We are moving forward very rapidly with this program that is so important to our nation and, in fact, to the entire world."

A bold new commercial market for space travel

An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon, also known as Dragon 2 or Dragon V2, orbiting Earth. (The first Dragon was a cargo and supply ship not designed to carry people.)Kennedy Space Center/SpaceX via Flickr
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When NASA books a ride with SpaceX, it plans to reserve four seats for its astronauts. This leaves SpaceX able to sell the others to private astronauts or — in staid industry parlance — "spaceflight participants."

But SpaceX is already teeing up all-private space missions. NASA helped pave the way for an improved space tourism market in June, when it announced changes to use of its modules on the space station to formally support private astronauts, though at a cost of $35,000 a night to cover lodging, supplies, internet, and other necessities.

"The deck was stacked very much against commercial activity on the space station," Richard Garriott, an English-American entrepreneur who paid $30 million for a two-week stay on the ISS in 2008, previously told Business Insider. "Almost all of us who flew privately literally had NASA either try to talk us out of it or try to ban us at one stage or another."Advertisement

In February, SpaceX announced that it had sold four seats through a spaceflight tourism company called Space Adventures. Then, in March, news broke that Axiom Space — led in part by a former ISS mission manager at NASA — had also inked a deal with SpaceX. Even Tom Cruise intends to fly aboard Crew Dragon so he can film a new action movie on the space station.

Fewer unknowns in a return to the moon and a leap toward Mars

An artist's concept of NASA astronauts returning to the surface of the moon via its Artemis program.NASA

With its Artemis program, NASA is pushing hard to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s and have crews maintain a continuous presence on a base there. The agency, under the Trump administration, is also pushing for human exploration of Mars in the 2030s.Advertisement

But little is known about how the human body might fare in either scenario, and the ISS provides the only space-based platform to earnestly ask those questions. Thus restoring and improving US access to it, saving on budget by improving competition, fostering commercial interest in orbit, and giving crew members more time to perform experiments would all ostensibly help.

As of right now, SpaceX's Demo-2 mission represents the most concrete step yet toward achieving that goal. "This launch is our next step towards increasing American and human presence on board the laboratory," Kirk Shireman, who manages the space station program at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said during the press briefing on May 1. "We look forward to having this flight and then repeatable — very repeatable — and sustainable low-Earth orbit Commercial Crew transportation flights."Advertisement

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