The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 22, 2020 1:00 am

Back in glory's orbit

Opening spaceflight to entrepreneurs offers nation needed inspiration

John McGauley

Our world has taken a dark turn of late. You are not alone if the news has become a phobia right up there with spiders and showing up naked in public.

But raise your eyes to your newspapers, TVs and computer monitors next week, friends. Something exciting and worth celebrating is about to happen, the first event of its kind in almost a decade. In an age of COVID-19, national division and economic downturn, something to celebrate might be just what the doctor ordered.

An American rocket is about to carry humans into space from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011. Everything about the way America puts people into space is about to change – and change for the better. We might just be back in space to stay, on the verge of a new golden age of human adventure and achievement.

Next week, SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is poised to launch two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. It will be the first flight of a new human-rated American spacecraft in almost 40 years, since space shuttle Columbia first took flight in 1981. Bound for an extended stay at the International Space Station, Dragon's entry into space will mark the first launch of humans from Florida since the shuttle's final mission lifted off on July 8, 2011.

I was there, watching from a few miles away, the day Atlantis roared into space for the final time, on the last of the shuttle's 135 launches. I'm a lifer to fandom in American human spaceflight and never in my worst thoughts did I imagine it would be nearly nine years before Americans would go back. This stands as the longest gap in U.S. human spaceflight since missions began nearly 60 years ago.

It hurts my heart to say it, but in the years since the space shuttle took its final bow, we have lost some of America's storied stature as a leader in human exploration of space.

Russia cornered the market on human space transportation, forcing America to pay an adversary $80 million per seat to reach a space station that Americans footed most of the bill to build. China has made repeated human flights to orbit and robotic missions to the surface of the moon. India has even begun to develop its own human-rated spacecraft. But since 2011, the United States has been watching from the sidelines.

This is by no means a political gripe. President George W. Bush ended the shuttle program while President Barack Obama put the brakes on its successor. It was a bipartisan mistake of historic proportions, forcing the nation that conquered the moon and built the first reusable spacecraft to hitch rides into orbit.

When Crew Dragon leaves Earth next week, America will be flipping the script on how it sends women and men to visit Earth orbit. Where once it was both provider and consumer of services, now NASA is the customer. Judging by the potential of what lies ahead, maybe that is the way it should be.

NASA has been good at many things over its history, including mastering – then scrapping – the technology needed to send astronauts into space. The Saturn V that sent Americans to the moon? Junked after just 12 launches. The space shuttle program, with a design life of potentially 500 launches, retired after just 135. This has resulted in long absences of Americans from human spaceflight. Five and a half years elapsed between Apollo and the shuttle and nearly twice as long now between shuttle and the Commercial Crew program from which Dragon arose.

NASA's strength is in setting goals to break barriers and make discoveries. But the agency's record as a provider of launch services is mixed.

The Orion crew spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket it is currently working on for flights beyond Earth are the second human spaceflight program NASA started since the shuttle began to wind down. Yet NASA has not launched a human in space without Russian help in more than 3,200 days. The first launch of Orion and SLS is now a solid “maybe” for late 2021. Thus the genius of NASA's Commercial Crew program from which Dragon springs.

In 2010, NASA decided to focus on exploration beyond Earth, to the moon, Mars and beyond, and to leave transportation into low Earth orbit to the private sector. NASA would be a paying passenger and the private sector would develop, test and launch the vehicles that would carry astronauts back into orbit from American soil.

Several aerospace companies answered the call, and SpaceX and Boeing were chosen to develop the new American rides into orbit. Boeing's spacecraft, Starliner, had problems on its first test flight and is not likely to carry crew into orbit before late 2020 or early 2021.

But soon, human space-flight will witness the first time in history that America – or any country, for that matter – will have two human spacecraft flying at the same time, with a third (Orion, riding on SLS) coming soon. This time, we really might be in space to stay.

The new energy percolating in American human spaceflight, partially as a result of Wednesday's Commercial Crew program scheduled launch, is no longer limited to extended camping trips to low Earth orbit. Companies including SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are planning and building for travel beyond our world.

SpaceX has already built a vehicle called Starship, the destination for which is the moon and Mars. Blue Origin is among the commercial builders selected recently to create the lander technology that will return humans to the moon.

These entrepreneurs are pushing ahead with a fervor for exploration, innovation and discovery that we have only seen in the rearview mirror since the days of Apollo. What the past couple of generations have only been able to read about, this generation might get to experience firsthand.

Along with exploration comes spaceflight's ability to inspire and turn our eyes upward again. Astronauts have been there to pull America up by its bootstraps at our lowest points in modern history.

The first flights of Project Mercury countered the rise of the Soviet Union. Apollo 8 put the first humans into orbit around the moon in the months after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were slain, during the darkest days of Vietnam. The space shuttle brought America roaring back after than malaise of the 1970s.

Maybe a Dragon is what it will take to breathe fire back into a nation that sorely needs a shot in the arm. 

Fort Wayne resident John McGauley has studied and written on the history of human spaceflight since the 1980s. He works in local government.

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