A new era has begun in space exploration with Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launching four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on the first full-fledged taxi flight for Nasa by a private company. The newly designed Crew Dragon capsule, christened “Resilience”, lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying four astronauts — three from the United States and one from Japan. The historic launch, known as the Crew-1 mission, comes 18 years after Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp with the ultimate goal of populating other planets. The Crew-1 mission marks a crucial milestone in the development of a space industry in which private sector companies provide business and tourism services in low-Earth orbit. This also ends almost a decade of international reliance on Russia for rides to the space station on its Soyuz rockets. In the future, instead of relying on government-operated spacecraft, Nasa astronauts and anyone else with enough money can buy a ticket on a commercial rocket. Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, Nasa awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co nearly $7 billion in contracts to build new transport systems to the space station, an orbiting laboratory about 400 km above Earth, as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew programme. In May, SpaceX completed a demonstration mission showing it could take astronauts to the ISS and bring them back safely. For the first time in history, there is a commercial capability from a private sector entity to safely and reliably transport people to space.
SpaceX plans to reuse the booster in the latest mission on its next crewed flight, which is scheduled to launch next year carrying another crew of four astronauts. The success of the crewed SpaceX launch means that the commercial crew programme would be continued in the Biden administration. The first operational commercial crew mission will also conduct unique science experiments, including the study on brain function changes during spaceflight, with an aim to better help astronauts do their work on long-duration missions on the space station, the moon and other deep-space destinations. SpaceX has begun development of a much larger vehicle called Starship that is to eventually go to the moon and Mars. The success of the latest mission is largely due to the audacious benchmark set by Musk, a big dreamer who also heads Tesla Motors, which produces new-age automobiles. The latest mission will dramatically transform the dynamics of space enterprise. Along with SpaceX, the aerospace giant Boeing is working with Nasa to expand the market and start a new era of human spaceflight under a public-private partnership model where Nasa contracts out routine flights to the space station to private companies.
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