Elon Musk's SpaceX readies first astronaut launch by private firm

With the scheduled launch of two NASA astronauts into orbit Wednesday, SpaceX aims to propel the U.S. into a historic new era of commercially led space exploration.

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No company has flown commercially developed hardware carrying humans and rendezvoused with the international space station. If successful, it would be a resounding achievement for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.; its billionaire founder, Elon Musk; and a milestone for NASA.

SPACEX WILL USE THIS ROCKET FOR ITS FIRST MANNED SPACE LAUNCH

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has spent years trying to shift away from the lumbering process of building and designing government-owned spacecraft, and toward using public-private partnerships to develop vehicles and then pay private contractors for specific services.

SpaceX’s efforts to launch astronauts into orbit have suffered various delays, totaling about four years, including two catastrophic explosions of its Falcon 9 rocket and nagging safety concerns about the Dragon capsule riding on top.

Having a reliable American system would mean NASA astronauts no longer need to piggyback on Russian rockets and spacecraft, as they have since the aging U.S. space-shuttle fleet was retired nine years ago. Looking ahead, NASA and White House officials envision emphasizing deep-space exploration as part of a commitment to relying on similar corporate-government teams. Those would include company-led endeavors, with relatively limited federal oversight, taking astronauts to the moon as soon as 2024 and later to Mars or beyond.

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Along those lines, Mr. Musk’s team has proposed a mammoth rocket carrying a companion deep-space craft—partly stainless steel and reaching some 40 stories together—intended to eventually transport large numbers of passengers. So far, NASA has committed $135 million to help develop the portion that could serve as a lunar lander.

Some longtime NASA watchers see the current mission as a crucial steppingstone, perhaps as significant in some ways as the Gemini missions of the mid-1960s that paved the way for the Apollo moon landings. But this time, making the government “a customer rather than operator is as astonishing as it is bold for NASA,” said Mark Albrecht, a former White House space adviser and retired senior industry executive. “NASA will take the blame for failure and allow SpaceX to receive most of the glory of success.”

The Dragon capsule, featuring the latest automation supplemented by touch-screen controls similar to those found on the dashboards of electric cars, has suffered a series of setbacks, including balky oxygen generators, malfunctioning thrusters and problematic parachutes. After launching just past 4:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, it is slated to stay at the orbiting laboratory for around two months. If all goes well on the launchpad in Florida and throughout the return trip ending with a splashdown in the Atlantic, NASA hopes to swiftly approve SpaceX’s systems as space taxis that would ferry crews to and from orbit.

“Human space flight is really, really tough,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said during a media teleconference Friday, as he and other speakers sketched out the long push to fix problems that cropped up. As company and NASA engineers work together to identify and alleviate risks, he said, “we are all holding each other accountable.”

THESE ARE THE ASTRONAUTS SPACEX WILL LAUNCH IN ITS FIRST MANNED MISSION

President Trump, who has emphasized the importance of both military and civilian space programs, is slated to attend the launch.

Boeing Co. has developed a rival capsule, the Starliner, which has struggled with its own technical challenges and might make a test flight later in the year without astronauts.

SpaceX started in 2002, with barely a dozen employees and based in a converted warehouse near a Southern California strip mall. The company has blossomed into a global powerhouse renowned for reducing prices to launch commercial and government payloads.

With some 7,000 employees, and facilities from Washington state to Texas to Florida, the company already has notched several records: It was the first private entity to place a satellite into Earth’s orbitthe first to land and then reuse major parts of returning rockets; and the first to send a spacecraft to link up with the orbiting international laboratory.

After investing a total of more than $7 billion of taxpayer money so far in SpaceX and Boeing efforts to resume astronaut liftoffs from U.S. soil, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine sees Wednesday’s event as the culmination of a new way for America and other nations to reach space. U.S. astronauts “need to have the capability of accessing space, not just for NASA but for all of humanity,” he said this month.

SPACEX TO LAUNCH NASA ASTRONAUTS IN HISTORIC MISSION

By encouraging private investments in such ventures, academics and industry officials said, NASA is increasing the likelihood of getting humans to the moon quickly and establishing a longer-term presence there, instead of depending entirely on federal support.

Traditional government funding strategies, by themselves, won’t be adequate to support U.S. space ambitions, said Howard McCurdy, a space historian at American University. “The [older] financial options certainly aren’t viable; they aren’t going to do it on a Project Apollo model.”

But even a trouble-free demonstration flight isn’t likely to usher in a booming era of smaller, inexpensive rockets—something Mr. Musk and other commercial-space champions once considered inevitable.

“Elon Musk opened the door to making space deals acceptable,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.

Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have spawned scores of such startups world-wide. But even before the coronavirus pandemic, only a handful of the new generation of rocket companies appeared to be gaining significant traction. Now, the contagion is creating formidable additional hurdles. With a few prominent exceptions——including Rocket Lab of New Zealand; Virgin Orbit, founded by Richard Branson; and Blue Origin LLC, run by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos—the specter of the virus has eroded financing and marketing prospects for many proposed projects.

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SpaceX operations, designated essential by authorities, have been largely uninterrupted by the pandemic. Many facilities have remained at least partly staffed, contrary to the recent turmoil surrounding moves to restart production at the Northern California factory of Mr. Musk’s electric-car company, Tesla Inc. The safety of the Dragon capsule and its crew depend on a host of complex, interrelated features—from autonomous docking to life-support systems—working in precise sequence on the first try, Mr. McCurdy said. The Russian space agency has achieved a formidable safety record carrying people to space, thanks to its long and steady history of launches.

Beyond the expected financial and strategic gains for the U.S. and its aerospace industry, many space professionals tend to describe the coming flight in grand terms. They focus on broader, more-intangible goals associated with rocketing humans outside the atmosphere. Launching satellites or robotic rovers is one thing, but little generates as much pride as human spaceflight.

Doug Hurley, a veteran NASA astronaut who flew on the final space-shuttle mission and is to be commander on the coming SpaceX launch, told a White House space-policy group earlier this month that the reality of what is about to happen has yet to sink in: “In some ways, it’s really hard to believe we’re going to launch.”

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