Ivan Couronne –
A rocket owned by the US company SpaceX will blast off from Florida on Friday (09:24 GMT), carrying two and a half tonnes of gear from NASA, only to dock three days at the International Space Station.
The rocket itself is not new. It launched a NASA satellite into orbit two months ago, then landed back on Earth — upright — on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Canaveral.
Friday’s flight will be the 15th SpaceX mission for the US space agency since 2012. Another company, Orbital ATK, has completed nine supply trips.
Today, NASA is so dependent on the private sector that the US space agency has signed contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to send astronauts to space beginning next year.
NASA has been unable to send people to space since the space shuttle programme ended in 2011. Instead, the world’s space agencies buy seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz spaceships, which launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
“The combination of government and private sector activity is unrivaled,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
SpaceX, founded by Tesla CEO and space enthusiast Elon Musk, has shaken up the satellite launch sector, with more than 55 launches of its Falcon 9 rocket since 2010. Thanks to SpaceX, the US has taken the global lead in launches once again, after losing to Russia and China.
Never before has low-Earth orbit been so accessible. Miniature satellites can be made quickly and launched for tens of thousands of dollars. These CubeSats make up 292 of the 345 satellites launched in 2017, according to the Satellite Industry Association.
“They are almost disposable,” said Claude Rousseau of Northern Sky Research, explaining their operational life expectancy is about seven years and they can be easily replaced. The age of space tourism is also approaching.
Virgin Galactic is ramping up tests for its piloted SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which is launched from an airplane. A seat will cost $250,000.
Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, will sell tickets next year for a seat on its New Shepard spacecraft, which is designed to carry six people to space. These two vehicles will allow passengers to experience spaceflight and weightlessness for several minutes before returning to Earth. —AFP