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Launch delayed: why this weekend’s SpaceX launch is so historic


Weather delayed the company’s first astronaut launch until the end of the month

It was meant to be a major milestone for the development of manned spaceflight. The privately-owned SpaceX was due to launch its first-ever crewed spaceflight from Cape Canaveral, the site of many famed NASA missions to space. Donald Trump, the United States president, had even jetted down to Florida to witness the launch on 27 May.

But then the weather put paid to the plans. Fears that it would affect the launch meant NASA and SpaceX decided to postpone the Commercial Crew Demo-2 mission, which would eventually carry two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The companies will instead try again on Saturday, 30 May.

The delay is frustrating for space watchers, but they’ll be glad to be patient. Whenever the launch happens, it’ll signal an enormous shift in the world of spaceflight. For nine years, manned space missions have lain dormant in the United States. The last flight of NASA’s space shuttle program took off in 2011.

Private enterprise takes over space

The reasons were numerous. For one thing, space was seen as too expensive for an economy trying to recover from the 2008 global financial crash. But it was also too dangerous: a number of explosions had made space flight seem risky. Until recently, astronauts heading to the International Space Station, where they carry out important missions and experiments to test technology that may have use on Earth, have had to launch from other sites, including in Russia.

But the year before the last US space shuttle flight, NASA launched its commercial crew program to try and develop public-private partnerships that would ease some of the financial strain. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX was one of the partners to sign up to the scheme. 

The launch is important because it is the final step in the process of the program before Falcon 9, the rocket that carries Crew Dragon, a human-carrying spacecraft, can be signed off to be used for operational use.

Profit, profit, profit

That would be a huge fillip for Musk, who has an eye for literal as well as metaphorical moonshots. It would show his company as being one of the major players in the aerospace industry – an incredible development for a company that entered a sector dominated by big, long-lasting players that have been around for as long as or longer than NASA.

But it would also be beneficial for Musk because the approval would allow him not just the cultural cache that comes with spaceflight, but the opportunity to make money too. One of the ways of offsetting the costs of sending people to space is to allow ordinary people to travel alongside astronauts.

It’s a play that many others have tried to capitalise on but failed so far. Virgin Space, led by eccentric British tycoon Richard Branson, has been promising to sell berths on spaceflights for more than a decade. And SpaceX has already started developing its own marketplace for places on the Crew Dragon craft. 

The launch this weekend will be the final step towards proving that the craft in which the company plans to send astronauts alongside ordinary people is safe and able to carry their load without any harm. If they can do that, then we could see the reignition of a new space race, with rocket boosters placed underneath private enterprise. Strap in and sit yourself down in front of the weekend’s launch: you could well end up witnessing history.

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