Elon Musk’s SpaceX opened up an era of commercial activity in space on Sunday as it became the first company to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
A capsule carrying two Nasa astronauts docked at the ISS on Sunday morning, a day after the first manned launch from US soil in almost a decade.
After bad weather interrupted the timetable, US president Donald Trump travelled to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a second time in four days to witness the SpaceX launch on Saturday, marking only the third time a president has been on hand for a trip into space. The California company’s Crew Dragon capsule, carrying the two Nasa crewmen, was sent on its first test trip to space from the same launch pad as the first manned moonshot in 1969.
“The same spirit of American determination that sends our people into space will conquer this disease on earth,” Mr Trump said at a launch event, referring to the Covid-19 crisis. “It should have never happened. Nothing, not even gravity itself, can hold Americans down or keep America back.”
The SpaceX mission marked the first time a privately owned and operated rocket had carried humans into orbit.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken aboard, docks with the International Space Station © AP
It also ended an ignominious nine-year period since the end of the Space Shuttle programme in which the US was forced to rely on Russia to carry its astronauts to the ISS.
However, the success over the weekend also highlighted a new gulf in American plans for space, as years of indecision about a successor to the ISS has left it unclear how the US will accommodate its astronauts in orbit as commercial flight makes access to space cheaper and easier.
“In the past the White House has pushed for defunding [the ISS] but Congress has pushed back,” said Laura Forczyk, a space consultant at Astralytical.
The uncertainty has also added to the geopolitical competition in space she added, with China offering to give other countries access to a planned space station of its own, potentially drawing interest from some of the 14 countries that are currently partners in the ISS.
The historic SpaceX flight brought a tussle for political credit over the weekend after the longest drought in America’s 59 years of manned space flight. “The last administration presided over the closing of the space shuttle,” Mr Trump said, claiming credit for bringing human flight back to American soil.
The Falcon 9 rocket takes off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center © Getty Images
However, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden claimed credit for the Obama administration, which presided over Nasa’s decision to commission the first private mission into orbit. Boeing is also hoping to match the SpaceX feat with a private spacecraft of its own, though software glitches in a test earlier this year have delayed its launch.
In an attempt to stamp his own name on the history of the space programme, Mr Trump has also pushed Nasa to bring forward its next Moon landing to 2024. That would potentially fall within a second Trump term in the White House, though few space experts think the timetable is realistic.