Historic NASA/SpaceX Mission Could Pave the Way for Space Tourism by 2021
After a minor setback, a new era in space travel and tourism is set to launch this weekend.
On Wednesday, a SpaceX rocket launch carrying NASA astronauts was postponed 16 minutes before liftoff due to weather concerns.
"We had simply too much electricity," said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, to BBC. "There was a concern that if we did launch, it could actually trigger lightning."
They will try again at 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30 and on Sunday, May 31 should the former also get scrapped.
The joint-mission, Demo-2, will make history as the first-ever manned commercial space flight and will take place in SpaceX's spacecraft "Crew Dragon."
When the SpaceX shuttle launches its private spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, with NASA astronauts in tow, it will mark the beginning of commercialized space exploration. SpaceX
The endeavor is actually a groundbreaking public-private partnership between NASA and SpaceX, who both hope the collaboration will further open up the universe of space exploration, literally.
In 2011, NASA retired its aging space shuttle program. Since then, the U.S. hasn't launched its own astronauts into space, booking them tickets instead to train on and launch from Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, reported CNN.
When the Crew Dragon launches, it will mark the return of America's ability to launch its own astronauts into space.
"When we launch from America with a rocket built in America by an American company who's only been flying vehicles for the last decade or so, that is a success story straight out of the movies," said Douglas Hurley, one of the two NASA astronauts manning the mission, reported NBC News. "The Russians have been great partners, but it's important for the United States to have its own launch capabilities."
NASA hopes that its partnership with SpaceX will also usher in a new commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit transportation.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will man the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. NASA
Rather than finance a replacement for the Space Shuttle, NASA has created the Commercial Crew Program to outsource "safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation" of cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS) to the private sector. The underlying objective was to free up NASA's time and resources for deeper space exploration, reported CNN.
"NASA has an ability to be a customer in a very robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit," Bridenstine told NBC News. The top NASA official also envisioned a future where that marketplace is "entirely commercialized," where NASA is "one customer of many customers," and where numerous providers continue to compete on cost, innovation and safety, reported BBC.
SpaceX senior advisor Garrett Reisman told Bloomberg that the "new venture" is a different model from what the space agency has used in the past. Private companies can now retain their intellectual property and own and operate the new technology, a huge upside for innovators.
"It's also the beginning of a whole new age, a whole golden age of commercial space flight," he continued, reported Bloomberg. "One of the things that is different is the fact that NASA doesn't own the Falcon 9 [rocket] and Dragon [spacecraft]; SpaceX does. So after this mission is over, we can use the same rocket, the same spacecraft to take ordinary citizens up into space. It's opening up all kinds of new possibilities."
The outsourcing has potentially saved taxpayers $20-30 billion dollars, Reisman estimated, reported Bloomberg. While seats on the Soyuz cost NASA up to $86 million each, Crew Dragon seats cost the agency roughly $55 million each for this mission, CNN found. According to CEO Elon Musk, filling all seven seats in the SpaceX capsule will lower costs to $20 million per astronaut, reported ABC News.
With the successful completion of this last test mission, which is also SpaceX's first flight with humans aboard ever, the company will have the green light to ferry crew to the ISS regularly starting in August or September, reported ABC News.
"This is a huge milestone for NASA, for the country, and for SpaceX, but there will be other milestones after this," Reisman told Bloomberg. He said it is "extremely realistic" that the Crew Dragon will be used to fly private citizens into space in 2021.
"This era of commercial space travel and space tourism is literally right around the corner," he added, reported Bloomberg.
Musk will continue to seek out potential new clients for his budding space transport business, perhaps space tourists looking for a quick getaway to the Moon or Mars, reported Bloomberg.
The news report also found that SpaceX's success has catalyzed the competition, with Boeing also gearing up to carry astronauts to orbit under the same NASA Commercial Crew Program. New market entrants like Blue Origin, financed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, are trying to cut costs using reusable rockets, a strategy Musk is also exploring.
"We're standing at the threshold of all of this commercial activity in space," said Wayne Hale, who led NASA's space shuttle program, reported Bloomberg. "One of the whole points of this exercise is to build a commercial business that can go on and do things in space that are not funded by the taxpayer, that actually create wealth and jobs."
After launch, Hurley and Robert Behnken, the other NASA astronaut, will spend roughly 19 hours aboard the Crew Dragon before arriving at the ISS, CNN reported. They will stay in space to staff the ISS for anywhere from 30 to 110 days, according to NASA. Then, the SpaceX Crew Dragon will return on its second manned mission with fresh crew and to bring the veteran astronauts back to Earth, CNN reported.
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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