It is not every day that a successful test of a rocket involves destroying the launch vehicle in midflight. SpaceX managed the feat during the inflight abort test it conducted Sunday morning. The test was an important milestone in the development of commercial human spaceflight.
The commercial spaceflight company launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a crewed Dragon on top. About 90 seconds into the flight, the Falcon 9’s engines switched off. Detecting that an anomaly had taken place, the Crewed Dragon fired its Draco rocket engines, separating it from the Falcon 9. As the Falcon 9 broke apart in midflight, the crewed Dragon soared away in safety. The spacecraft eventually splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean using parachutes. NASA and SpaceX will spend the next several months examining data garnered by the flight.
While the possibility of an inflight abort is an extreme event, it is not a theoretical one. In October 2018, a crewed Soyuz launch suffered an unplanned inflight abort. After the booster failed, the Soyuz capsule broke away and eventually landed near the launch site with its crewmembers, Russian cosmonaut Alexsey Ovchinin and American astronaut Nick Hague, shaken but alive and well.
The inflight abort test is the last major event scheduled to occur before the crewed demonstration flight, when astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken will take a crewed Dragon to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX and NASA estimate that the flight will take place sometime in the second quarter of 2020. When it does happen, the mission will usher in a new era of commercial human spaceflight.
Thus far, human beings have been launched into space by government space agencies in the U.S., Russia and China. Henceforth, private launch companies will take human beings into low Earth orbit, with NASA as one of hopefully many customers. The long-range goal is to create a low Earth orbit economy in which both NASA and private astronauts travel to and from space, doing useful and, it is expected, profitable things on the high frontier.
Initially, private space travelers are likely to be the sorts of space tourists who used to fly to the ISS on board the Soyuz. Both the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing Starliner will have extra seats for the well-heeled and adventurous who want to pay a lot of money for the adventure of a lifetime.
But the low Earth orbit market has to be bigger than just a few rich people paying for space flights. The next step must to be the development of private space stations, such as envisioned by Bigelow and Axiom. These commercial space facilities could start manufacturing products using the unique properties of space, micro gravity and hard vacuum, to produce goods and services that would be next to impossible to create on Earth.
Orbiting space manufacturing facilities could also be used to build satellites that would be impossible to launch from Earth on a rocket. These include communications satellites with huge arrays that must be 3D printed and then assembled by robots. A company called Made in Space has already conducted promising experiments on the International Space Station for such a process.
Other experiments point the way to using stem cells to create transplantable human organs in space. It may be easier to build hearts, kidneys and other organs in microgravity. Orbiting organ farms, considered the stuff of science fiction, may become a reality. The University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine has just started experiments along those lines.
Of course, the key to making these and other space-manufactured products economically viable is driving down the cost of space travel. Governments can do many, wondrous things, from going to the moon to building the ISS. They rarely do anything cheaply.
A commercial space launch industry, with companies such as SpaceX and Boeing competing against one another, has every potential to lower the cost of space travel. The less expensive space travel is, the more products and services made in space become economically viable.
With the exception of communications satellites, GPS and a few other applications, space has been pursued for science, military advantage and political soft power. The SpaceX inflight abort test is a milestone on the road to adding large-scale commercial activity to that list.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.