It seems we can’t go a week without seeing Elon Musk’s name in the headlines. The Tesla CEO has protested the forced closure of factories due to Covid-19, promised to sell all of his possessions, and even welcomed a child into the world with partner Grimes. While that would be enough to keep anyone busy for the greater part of the year, Musk managed to stay focused on one historic moment: launching two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in a mission called Demo-2.
A worldwide pandemic has the ability to steer attention away from the space race that previously dominated all conversation during 2019, with what seemed like every major tech entrepreneur and billionaire throwing their hat in the ring in the hope that they might see it happen. But none look to have been as committed as Musk to the venture.
The stakes for Demo-2 were high, as the adventure marks the first time in history that a commercial aerospace company has carried humans into Earth's orbit. NASA and space fans were counting down to the moment which has been a decade in the making, one that hasn’t been smooth but rather punctuated by disaster and numerous misadventures. Not since 2011 has the US sent its own astronauts into orbit, opting instead for their astronauts to travel to Russia to train on the country’s Soyuz spacecraft. Should Demo-2 be successful, it could just pave the wave for the space agency’s near-Earth ambitions for future generations.
Even the main event,which was originally scheduled to take place 4.33pm on Wednesday in the United States, ultimately had to be postponed due to bad weather.
But come Saturday, at 3.22pm, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from the same launchpad that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon back in 1969. On board were Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, two friends whose job happened to be that of testing the systems of the Dragon spacecraft.
Once having landed at the ISS, the astronauts will remain there for up to three months while mission managers evaluate the spaceship’s performance.
As The Guardian reports, “In a symbolic nod to the new world order, the astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will ride to the Launchpad in a new electric car manufactured by Tesla, another of Musk’s pioneering companies, foregoing the “tin-can” Astrovan that has been the traditional crew transport since the US began sending humans into space in 1961.”
As for the rocket itself, the hardware was built by Musk’s SpaceX – which he founded, and was funded by the US government under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
The launch now proves that the private sector can handle the incredible burden of human spaceflight - a quest that for years, has seemed virtually impossible. SpaceX is now the first company to fly people to orbit, while Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has flown people to the very edge of space and back, in up-and-down suborbital flights, twice.
Donald Trump was no doubt pleased with the effort, after he even extended to NASA the ambitious order for them to make the first crewed moon landing since 1972 within the next four years as part of his Presidential campaign.
With everything else going on in the world, this could just be the milestone and emblematic symbol of hope we need to get us through such uncertain times.