It may happen Saturday. It may happen a few days from now. But sometime soon, NASA Director Jim Bridenstine will see a long-standing goal realized: American astronauts launched from American soil in American-made vehicles.
During his time on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the former 1st District Congressman from Tulsa developed some definite ideas about the U.S. space program.
One was that the United States should not be dependent upon Russia (or anybody else) to put astronauts into space — which the U.S. has been since 2011.
Another was that the space program’s future depends on commercial applications of space exploration and technology.
Bridenstine took those ideas with him to NASA when he became its director in 2018.
“I didn’t start the space program in the direction we’re going,” Bridenstine said earlier this week, “but I’m doing all I can to keep it going in that direction.”
The roads have converged at Saturday’s 2:22 p.m. planned launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying two astronauts aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
The launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday but was postponed because of weather — more precisely, Bridenstine said, because of moderately dangerous levels of atmospheric electricity that could have turned the rocket into a lightning bolt.
The Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon are not only made by SpaceX but also owned by them, with the expectation of use on future missions by NASA or another client.
“We’re not doing this in a traditional way,” Bridenstine said. “Basically, we’re buying an Uber (ride).”
SpaceX is not NASA’s only commercial partner in manned flight. The Commercial Crew Development program, launched in 2010, is intended to foster competition and a certain amount of redundancy in the space program.
As a result, NASA has contracts with both SpaceX and Boeing to produce manned space flight systems. The goal is to encourage innovation and to not leave NASA dependent on one system and one group of suppliers.
The long-term goal is to drive down per-mission costs by increasing access to space flight, manned and unmanned, and its uses.
Commercial satellite launches, for instance, have become fairly routine, but Bridenstine envisions more advanced operations in space, including what amounts to the custom manufacture of human organs.
Experiments are already underway on the International Space Station using 3-D bioprinters to make delicate tissues and structures. Earth’s gravity makes such work difficult-to-impossible on terra firma, but early results from the weightlessness — or, technically, the weightlessness of space — are promising.
“Imagine going into space with a box of material and coming back with, say, 1,000 human retinas that could save people with macular degeneration from blindness,” Bridenstine said.
Weather forecasts are iffy, but whether the first Crew Dragon flight is Saturday or a few days from now, Bridenstine believes the U.S. and the world is on the cusp of a new era in space travel and exploration.
“I see it like the 1920s (in aviation),” he said. “Air travel became what you might think of as normalized. I’m not saying you’re going to be able to buy a ticket for 250 bucks a pop for space travel, but I do think it’s going to become more normalized.”