SpaceX Final Human Space Abort Test Successful
Yesterday, SpaceX successfully performed its final necessary mission to test its human-capable rocket, Dragon, before astronauts actually are inside. This abort test--to make sure astronauts can survive a high-altitude abort--was pretty cool to watch (10 minute video):
As you may know, SpaceX and Boeing have been in a heated competition to see who can launch American astronauts first to the International Space Station (ISS). The United States has been without the capability to launch humans into space since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011, and we have been relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take our astronauts (and Russian cosmonauts and crew from the rest of the world) to the ISS.
Boeing (read: Old Space!), has come under very heavy criticism for its very expensive approach. It declined to perform any abort tests--instead relying only on computer simulations to qualify its spacecraft for human flight. Its Starliner spacecraft (which is rated to carry 4 astronauts) has cost $5.1 billion to develop under a fixed-cost contract that NASA has inexplicably increased by a few hundred million dollars recently.
The cost per seat of Starliner will be $90 million when it starts to carry crew. In Starliner's recent first test flight into space (Dec. 20, 2019), the uncrewed capsule failed to dock with the ISS as intended, and landed--albeit successfully--with one of its parachutes not inflated. NASA has refused to call the mission a failure, and the next Starliner flight *may* actually be crewed.
SpaceX (read: New Space!) has developed Crew Dragon under a fixed-cost contract of $3.1 billion, and is expected to cost $55 million per seat once it starts to carry crew. For comparison, the cost per seat of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is currently $86 million. Uncrewed versions of Dragon have already resupplied and docked to the ISS at least 15 times since the year 2014.
With yesterday's successful abort test, SpaceX is expecting to launch its first crewed vehicle sometime between April and June of this year. Boeing's first crewed date is still uncertain based on its December test flight, but there is a good chance it will be later than that.
The final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, which did dock to the ISS, left an American flag on the station that the first crewed American mission since then is supposed to return to Earth as a symbolic victory of sorts.
I know there are many critics of SpaceX (and Elon Musk, in particular), but what SpaceX has done is pretty damn amazing. Reusing its Falcon rockets to dramatically lessen the cost of getting into space, pushing the boundaries of the technologies used to get into space (and back!), doing so with safety as a high priority, owning up to their failures (and celebrating them), and sparking people's excitement and interest about space--landing rockets upright, launching a Tesla roadster, letting the employees cheer during live launches (the Boeing launches are so boring by comparison)--it is pretty amazing what the company has done over the past decade.
For those still critical and unconvinced, Gwynne Shotwell is one of the main drivers behind SpaceX's success--at the very least give her some credit:
Finally, should humans go into space? It is definitely more expensive than robotics, and I can understand that argument. But, that argument is becoming less persuasive as companies like SpaceX drive costs down.
Yes, humans are not adapted to space. But, I remain convinced they could still do well in areas with less gravity like the Moon or Mars.
In the end, the question really comes down to are humans worth saving? I'll admit that some days I have serious questions about that. But, then I see some of the amazing stuff that people have done, both in public (like SpaceX) and in my personal life, and I think we are worth salvaging.
If humans only remain on Earth, that's all our eggs in one basket. Some random comet or asteroid--or even nuclear war or global warming--could end it all. Having small but viable populations "up there" on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere, with the ability to return to Earth, would contribute to ensuring the survival of our species should something like that occur. Of course surviving up there will be tough, but we would learn huge amounts in the process.
And in the end, the reason we do this is for humans.