Though the mission comes four years after its originally scheduled date, its fate has been keenly watched across the globe, in anticipation that success will set the template for governments partnering the private sector for manned spaceflight.
The SpaceX’s Crew Dragon flight that docked with the International Space Station on Tuesday, carrying four astronauts on a six-month-long mission, heralds the era of ‘space taxis’. It isn’t the first private sector manned flight to space—that distinction belongs to SpaceX’s Demo-2 test mission launched on May 30 this year—but it is the world’s first ‘regular operations’ manned spaceflight by a private sector player. A SpaceX Falcon rocket launched the Crew Dragon spacecraft; the capsule has been named Resilience by its four passengers, a nod to human tenacity in a very, very challenging year. Resilience is a fully automated (but supervised by the astronauts) capsule commissioned under the US’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Though the mission comes four years after its originally scheduled date, its fate has been keenly watched across the globe, in anticipation that success will set the template for governments partnering the private sector for manned spaceflight.
After NASA retired on its space shuttle programme in 2011 and had to rely on the services of Russia’s Soyuz (at a cost of $80 million per astronaut), the US government kicked off the Development of Commercial Crew programme to harness private sector capacity at a much cheaper cost (estimated at slightly over half the cost of hiring Soyuz, etc). After the multi-stage selection process, with development funding from the government, contracts for operational spacecraft to fly astronauts were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014. Though SpaceX is reported to have invested a large sum, the scale of the US government funding underscores how crucial public spending is to such engagement; the two companies have received nearly $8 billion from NASA for the development of their crew capsules, the Crew Dragon and the Starliner.
Most nations with advanced space capabilities are turning to rope in the private sector for more cost-efficient “functional” space operations—involving satellite launches to the low Earth orbit, unmanned and manned space missions to the ISS, etc—as they devote their public space brawn to space exploration. To that end, the US government has been scaling back NASA funding over the years and vacating space for the private sector. India has caught on late—as this newspaper has pointed out earlier, nearly two decades since it first talked about this; indeed, an application by the Indian concern of Hughes Network Systems has been awaiting a decision for many years now—but the current policy inspires hope. The Crew Dragon success should help alleviate any remaining hesitations about involving private players for developing space technology, though space is a strategic sector. Indeed, given how some private sector players—largely US-based—are already working on developing manned flight capabilities for the solar orbit, including interplanetary travel, India has a lot of catching up to do if it is to continue to flex the space muscle that Isro operations have developed for it.