Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon craft has delivered Nasa astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Nine years after the Space Shuttle mission was decommissioned and American astronauts had to buy rides on Russian craft, the privately-owned SpaceX programme has ended Moscow’s monopoly on crew transport. Emboldened, President Donald Trump has pledged that US astronauts will return to the moon in 2024 to stay, and make a launch base for Mars. For good measure, the US would put the first woman on the moon, and the first astronauts on Mars. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, responded that it was surprised by the “hysteria” about the Crew Dragon’s success, because reaching the ISS is not the same as reaching Mars.
There may be tactical motives for downplaying the first notable success of private enterprise in space, but the celebrations are also out of proportion. When Nasa decommissioned the Shuttle, it indicated that it was no longer interested in performing routine jobs like ferrying people to orbit, but wanted to reserve budgets for opening fresh beachheads in space. Private participation was supposed to step in. What’s surprising is that it took so long. Besides, Trump’s competitive America-first rhetoric is of Cold War vintage, when winning the space race was a matter of superpower prestige. It now rings hollow, when budgets for space projects, like terraforming Mars so that it can host a permanent base, and the scientific projects which ride on them, are expensive enough to beggar national economies. An era of partnerships in space is beginning, not only public-private (ISRO has taken decisive steps in this direction) but also between spacefaring nations. After the ravages of COVID-19 and social unrest in the US, this would be inevitable.
National governments will remain at the cutting edge because only they can underwrite the risk of the unknown. But as the industry expands, there will be more than enough room in space for private players. Nasa project components have always been farmed out to aerospace contractors and now, SpaceX has opened up the transport market. The first space tourism flight was tested last year and Virgin Galactic could lead a premium market. Rapid mass commercial aviation at the edge of space would probably be the most lucrative segment in the future. The Crew Dragon has broken a psychological barrier, but aversion to risk would probably keep private capital to a secondary or supporting role in space.
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