America has launched astronauts back into space on vehicles made in the USA, and this time it’s private firms providing the ride. Since its space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station. That changed on May 30, when Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched its first manned mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Musk’s company, known as SpaceX, and Boeing Co. are taking over these flights under a $6.8 billion NASA initiative. There’s more at stake than big government contracts: Space taxi builders hope transporting astronauts will lead to ferrying tourists.
Shuttling astronauts to the space station is the next phase in NASA’s program to hand off the ho-hum aspects of spaceflight closer to Earth while it marshals resources to explore deep space. While SpaceX and Boeing will provide the initial charter flights, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s shuttle-like Dream Chaser and a spacecraft from Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, may eventually provide a similar taxi service. Already, NASA relies on commercial outfits to deliver food and equipment in drone capsules to the space station, which circles the planet at a distance of about 220 miles, (354 kilometers). That’s well within what’s known as low-Earth orbit, which extends to 2,000 kilometers out. SpaceX launched the first private resupply run to the station in 2013, and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman Corp.) began making deliveries in 2014. They’ll be joined as well by Sierra Nevada. Musk’s SpaceX is revolutionizing the rocket industry by re-landing booster rockets for reuse rather than letting them burn up while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. By recycling machinery as expensive to build as a Boeing 737 jet, Musk hopes to drive down costs to the point where consumers can become space explorers. Since SpaceX stuck its first successful re-landing on Dec. 21, 2015, the feat has almost become routine. On Feb. 6, 2018, the company launched the world’s most powerful rocket in 45 years, then flew two of its spent boosters back to the Florida coast for a spectacular, simultaneous upright landing.