America’s first astronaut launch in 9 years: How did we get here?
Commercial space changed the direction of U.S. spaceflight
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The Space Shuttle Program was always going to end.
An engineering marvel, a national treasure, and a gateway to space exploration, the Space Transportation System, or STS, positioned NASA and America as leaders in space for three decades.
For all the shuttle program did for humanity, delivering a galaxy-hunting telescope to orbit and building the International Space Station, they had their drawbacks.
The STS was expensive, averaging half-a-billion dollars per aunch.
The program also cost the lives of 14 astronauts. It was complicated, with more than two million moving parts. Maintenance became more complicated and tedious as the shuttles aged.
And it was never meant to explore deep space.
In 2004, President George W. Bush announced he was cancelling the Shuttle Program.
Thousands of workers at Kennedy Space Center and space contractors across Central Florida lost their jobs, with the promise they'd be called back to work on NASA's next big project: Constellation, a deep-space exploration program headed to the moon and one day Mars powered by an Ares rocket.
In 2010, President Barack Obama cancelled that program, salvaged the Orion crew capsule from Constellation, and called for the development of what would become the Space Launch System (SLS), promising more than 2,500 jobs on the Space Coast within two years.
Currently, both the Orion capsule and SLS heavy-lift rocket are still in development, behind schedule, and over budget.
In 2011, after the Space Shuttle Program had been extended several times to allow for the completion of the Space Station, Atlantis touched down at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility for the final time, bring the shuttle program to a close.
America suddenly had no way to go to the ISS, except for relying on Russia.
But under the Obama administration, something else happened that would change the direction of U.S spaceflight.
NASA turned to the commercial space industry, paying SpaceX and Boeing more than $6 billion to develop human-rated capsules to take American astronauts back to the Space Station.
In 2012, SpaceX became the first-ever commercial company to launch a cargo capsule from the Spacecoast to the Space Station after more than a decade of development, billions of dollars invested, and several high-profile failures.
SpaceX started by test launching the Falcon 1, a smaller, simpler version of today's Falcon 9, funded by a young billionaire who wouldn't give up: Elon Musk.
During initial testing, Musk lost three test rockets and burned through most of his fortune.
“If the fourth launch hadn’t worked, that would have been it,” Musk said in 2012. “We would have not had the resources to mount a fifth ... death would have been inevitable at that point.”
Musk has always believed humans should be a "multi-planetary species;" his goal has always been to get to Mars.
In 2018, he got a little closer, launching his Falcon Heavy rocket from the Cape with his cherry-red Tesla Roadster on top, now orbiting the sun, near Mars.
Right now though, Spacex is headed for the ISS with two American astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who've been training for years for this mission.
Both are Space Shuttle veterans.
In fact, it was Hurley himself who brought the Shuttle program to a close; he piloted Atlantis down to Kennedy's runway in 2011.
This time, nine years later, the Crew Dragon will pilot itself into space and even dock itself at the ISS.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called the mission "a new generation, a new era in human space flight."
Bridenstine said it will be the first time since 1981 and only the fifth time in NASA's history that astronauts will launch on a brand new space vehicle.
"I'm going to tell you this is a high-priority mission of the United States of America," Bridenstine said. "We have not had our own access to the International Space Station for nine years."
Until now, NASA has been paying Russia around $80 million per seat for a ride to the space station.
Bridenstine said that will end once the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 launch America back into space.
Bridenstine said NASA was negotiating with Russia to buy one final seat from Russia for an October Soyuz launch. After that, NASA would begin to trade seats on the Soyuz for seats on Dragon.
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