Featured image credit: SpaceX
All rocket launches are special. Through feats of human ingenuity and scientific achievement, a rocket defies the inexhaustible pull of gravity and rise away from our pale blue dot.
I still remember my first launch, standing on the causeway as a Delta IV Heavy carried an Orion capsule on EF-1 in late 2014. By rocket launch watching standards, I’m a new-comer – but I’ve heard from every fellow NASA Social participant and space industry professional that you never forget that first launch – and every launch makes an impression in your memory.
In 26 hours – barring any holds for weather (currently 60% favorable) or technical concerns – NASA and SpaceX will launch a Crew Dragon capsule to orbit atop a Falcon 9. The mission, Crew Dragon Demo-2, or more commonly shortened to ‘DM-2,’ will lift astronauts Robert ‘Bob’ Behnken and Douglas ‘Doug’ Hurley to the International Space Station.
DM-2 is the first time since 2011 that astronauts will launch to orbit from U.S. soil; it’s not the first American astronaut launch from American soil though, as Virgin Galactic holds that honor with their December 2018 suborbital test flight. This doesn’t undermine the impact of DM-2 – it’s a historic milestone in a year history will never forget and marks a major, long-anticipated advancement in the government-commercial sector partnership to increase access to space and bring costs down.
It also signals a new era for space tourism and commercial space flight, almost as equally long-anticipated. SpaceX holds a contract that will eventually allow them to carry paying private citizens to the ISS aboard the same Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 configuration; they’ve already announced plans to offer this in conjunction with Space Adventures on an undisclosed timeline. Undoubtedly tomorrow’s DM-2 launch is an important milestone for those commercial opportunities too.
“[DM-2] is the beginning of a burgeoning commercial business in human space flight that won’t be limited to one provider, but instead will open up opportunities for tremendous growth in the commercial human space flight industry,” says Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “In the very near term, we will see Virgin Galactic as well as Blue Origin provide services for spaceflight participants. And, we will continue to see SpaceX fulfill its NASA obligations of faring NASA astronauts and hopefully commercial astronauts.”
In a statement last week, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides voiced support for the launch and its implications for the space tourism industry. “There is no end to the exciting opportunities and possibilities this could bring, such as commercial astronauts or academic researchers being able to experience space in a more affordable way aboard SpaceShipTwo, or getting a ride to a space station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner,” Whitesides’ statement reads. “It is a future where our way of life on Earth is enhanced as more people experience the global perspective brought about by experiencing space.”
Others in the space industry echo these sentiments. “I see this as a major moment for space tourism – or it could be,” shares Joe Pappalardo, author of Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight. “Humanity already had space tourists in orbit in ISS, so many people’s view of the next step for private folk in space would at least equal that. That’s where SpaceX comes in with [Crew] Dragon. It’ll be a proven spacecraft that anyone in the world can hire to get off the planet and get into orbit.”
“Anyone” might be a stretch, given the astronomical prices we’re talking about. Price and affordability is one of the primary and most reasonable criticisms of the budding space tourism industry.
At the lowest end, suborbital space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have offered reservations (or in Blue Origin’s case, been rumored to consider pricing) starting at $200,000-$250,000 – and rising quickly. A trip to and stay aboard the ISS is typically a $20 million trip at minimum, though it’s looking more like a $50 million prospect in the next decade or so. This prices out, well, almost everyone on earth – and do we really need another way for the 1% to splurge?
“NASA is just the Crew [Dragon]’s first customer,” says Pappalardo.“With SpaceX able to sell tickets to nearly anyone who wants to go, more nations can embark on national space missions (to destinations like new space stations and the Moon) without having to pay for whole spade programs. This could give rise to a new global crop of astronauts, natural spokespeople for science and engineering, from nations that could benefit from this kind of inspiration.”
Among those scientists and academics and researchers will undoubtedly be a few tourists that come home with stories of space that will inspire the next generation to reach the stars and beyond.
And for those of us who can’t yet afford a ticket – even suborbital – Pappalardo predicts a rise in ‘rocket tourism:’ “Every launch is amazing but having humans onboard adds so much drama, risk, and excitement. I predict big crowds for every launch that has people as payloads, and maybe even for every launch now that people think [Kennedy Space Center] is back in business.”
While in-person viewing has been discouraged for tomorrow’s launch, many are predicting crowds will form anyway – and no matter how you look at it, DM-2 is the kind of historic launch I’d want to see in person too.