“Space is hard,” admits Steve Carell’s character in the new Netflix original series Space Force. While not eloquent or nuanced, his point is surprisingly similar to a line from President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Moon Shot speech: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The United States was extremely successful in the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, the challenges posed by space exploration, including a declining budget and the Columbia shuttle explosion in 2003, led to the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. The glamour of the unknown had faded since the glory days of the Moon landings, and the U.S. no longer had the means to independently sustain space exploration and related missions.
I was a space nerd as a kid, and, admittedly, I still am. My dad grew up during the height of the Apollo missions; he collected every related newspaper clipping he could find, which he shared with me as I got older. When the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on U.S. soil for the final time, I was on a road trip with my maternal grandparents and one of my cousins. Just before 6:00 a.m. EDT on July 21, 2011, I remember excitedly waking up and turning on the hotel TV to watch. It was still dark in our room and on the screen, where I could see the outline of Atlantis touching down, white smoke coming off of the wheels as it landed for a final time on the runway in Florida. The U.S. was the outer space superpower that brought the first humans to the moon; however, the end of the Shuttle program left the U.S. without a way to send its own astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), leading NASA to pay upwards of $80 million per seat to countries like Russia in order to transport their astronauts. NASA’s budget has gone from 4.41 percent of the federal budget at its peak—in 1966—to 0.48 percent of the federal budget in 2020; this is a massive defunding and a metaphorical, perhaps even a literal, fall from grace.
Nine years later, the U.S. regained its ability to launch American astronauts, in American rockets, from American soil. At 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30, 2020, I watched as NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched to the ISS from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Center in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, atop the Falcon 9 rocket. Where Atlantis was an ending, this was a beginning, reflected in the excitement and nerves of the individuals on screen, responsible for the mission’s success, and of those of us watching at home. Initially, this mission—Demo-2—was set for launch at 4:33 p.m. EDT on May 27, but it was scrubbed about 15 minutes prior to launch due to weather concerns. The Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully achieved its soft docking with the ISS at 10:16 a.m. EDT on Sunday, May 31, and after hard capture—which established an airtight seal between the ship and the ISS—followed by vestibule pressurization and leak checks, Behnken and Hurley made their way onto the ISS. If the entire mission is a success, it will “validate [NASA’s] partner’s crew capabilities to return American spaceflight from American soil,” as stated in an official NASA Instagram post, and allow NASA and SpaceX to go forward in their partnership, which has great implications for the future of space exploration.
It is fitting that Behnken and Hurley are both former test pilots, as the Demo-2 mission is, at its core, a test flight; it is the first time that SpaceX has launched a crewed flight. Both men served in the military and were part of NASA’s Space Shuttle program; Hurley was one of the crew members on STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission. The Commercial Crew partnership between NASA and private American aerospace companies—including SpaceX and Boeing—is brand new. These partnerships enhance innovation, will result in more frequent missions, and are less expensive than paying for seats on Russian spacecraft, because private corporations do not rely on the government for funding, and because allocating projects to these companies allows NASA to focus its resources on designing and testing deep space crafts.
NASA and SpaceX’s innovation was on full display during the Demo-2 mission launch, which boasted crucial new features, including the Crew Dragon’s abort launch capabilities, and the Falcon 9’s ability to return back to Earth for reuse. Hailed as a modern space vehicle, the Crew Dragon is also equipped with touchscreens, which are compatible with the gloves of modern spacesuits. The launch escape system allows for the Crew Dragon capsule holding the astronauts to separate from the Falcon 9 rocket in case of emergency, and it gives the spacecraft a significantly higher level of safety than the Space Shuttles of the past. Indeed, SpaceX engineer Jessica Anderson called it “the safest launch system ever flown,” while explaining these features during Saturday’s live broadcast preceding the launch.
Another first is the ability to return the Falcon 9 rocket to Earth to be used again. This took tremendous amounts of testing and failure, and it was previously thought to be too difficult to achieve. Yet, thousands watched on Saturday, May 30, 2020, as the Falcon 9 landed on SpaceX’s drone ship after thrusting the Crew Dragon into low-Earth orbit. This rocket is designed to be flown ten times, with refurbishment in between each flight, and could potentially take more flights after subsequent testing. Removing the need to produce another rocket saves SpaceX and NASA both time and money, which can then be allocated elsewhere.
These astounding innovations push the U.S. closer to a new era of space transportation where the country can send more people to space at a higher frequency. During live launch coverage on May 27, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir explained that this increased access brings with it an increase in national pride, allowing for stronger support of technological advancements and scientific experiments. The Demo-2 launch is being hailed as an example of American greatness, of what Americans can achieve when they come together, and it was publicized with the phrase “Launch America.” Emphasis on national pride and unity is not a surprising strategy—at a time when the country is so divided, many will likely seize on these bits of triumph and good news. The reemergence of the U.S.’s ability to independently access outer space may seem simple to some, but it marks a momentous shift that will open up a new era of space travel.
NASA recently began unveiling plans for its Artemis Program, through which Americans will return to the moon by 2024; its missions will provide a solid foundation for humans to endeavor on deep space exploration, with the goals of developing sustainable missions and eventually putting humans on Mars. However, this program begins in a drastically different political and social atmosphere than the Space Race of the 1960s, which took place against the backdrop of intense nationalism and competition with the Soviet Union. A Soviet victory would have brought a great military and scientific advantage, as well as the possibility of a space-based weapons system. It was the United States’ fierce desire and strategy to best the Soviets at whatever they could, from nuclear weapons to outer space, that launched the U.S. space program. The program succeeded in part due to modest public support, but, most importantly, it triumphed because politicians believed it served a greater political purpose in the midst of the Cold War. It was also highly victorious: the U.S. became the first—and remains the only—country to put a man on the moon.
Despite continued competition and tension between the U.S. and other major powers with orbital launch capabilities—such as Russia and China—the Artemis program lacks much of the public spectacle that the Space Race had. While the majority of Americans support space exploration, polls have also shown that public support for spending money on NASA’s programs is quite similar to what it was during the Apollo program, which was only around 50 percent. Popularity and attention will likely grow as the Artemis missions begin and start to inspire a new generation. Still, despite their scientific importance, without a clearly defined, relevant purpose, these expensive missions will undoubtedly be subject to criticism and pose many important questions. Will learning more about humans’ place in the universe and our existence on Earth allow us to more successfully address pressing problems of inequality and climate change? Or is SpaceX’s Elon Musk too detached from reality when he talks about building cities on Mars, considering there is so much injustice within our current systems on Earth? It remains to be seen how these emerging concerns will impact the direction of space exploration and levels of national support for NASA’s programs.