The space race started with the USSR vs USA – who would be the first to get a satellite into orbit? Sputnik 1 beat the USA when it launched in 1957, orbiting for just over two months before falling back to earth. And so they were off.
The years that followed saw rockets catapulting into orbit, followed by brave humans leaving the stratosphere and then, fatefully, the first human steps left their mark on the face of the moon in 1969. But the fascination with space started well before any of that: we have long looked towards the stars hopefully.
The last weekend of May 2020 took us to a new chapter in our pursuit to reach those stars. SpaceX became the first private company to launch human beings into orbit. Its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft carried two NASA astronauts successfully to the ISS.
The launch was particularly significant as it marked the first instance of American astronauts being launched into orbit since 2011. This also means that NASA will no longer need to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecrafts to transport its astronauts to the ISS. There are estimates that this could save NASA more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.
This also marks the era of commercial space flights and is a fundamental change in how space travel will operate: now private companies, rather than government bodies will be sending astronauts and paying tourists into orbital space.
SpaceX, for example, plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year – if all goes according to plan. The company has also signed agreements to begin offering seats to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips – we can only imagine what the price tags will be on those tickets!
The age of big business in space is upon us with other private companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, in the mix too. Virgin Galactic, for example, is hoping to create hotels in space and Blue Origin envisioning “building a road to space with our reusable launch vehicles, so our children can build the future”.
The introduction of these private companies will not only involve more space exploration – perhaps regular trips to the moon and even Mars on the cards with SpaceX’s ‘Mars & Beyond’ roadmap – but also will show us the true potential of space tourism.
The famous words Neil Armstrong once uttered ring true today still: this is “one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind” with the future possibilities stretched out before us.