In the first routine flight of what NASA hopes will be a long series, SpaceX will launch four astronauts from the United States on Sunday evening to the International Space Station. This is the first six-month “operational” mission launched by SpaceX, which marks the resumption of human space flights from the United States last May, after nine years of disruption and dependence on Russia.
Three Americans, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will take off Sunday at 7:27 p.m. (12:27 GMT Monday) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They will moor on Tuesday around 04:00 GMT Monday at the station (ISS), where two Russians and an American are located, and will stay there for six months.
This “operational” flight follows the successful demonstration mission from May to August, during which two American astronauts were taken to the ISS and brought back to Earth safely by SpaceX.
Continue cooperation with Russia?
US Vice President Mike Pence will attend the launch in person.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is the second device currently capable of reaching the ISS, along with the very reliable Russian Soyuz, which has since 2011 routed all visitors to the station, after the shutdown of American shuttles. It took the Americans nine years to certify the successor to the Shuttles. A second aircraft, manufactured by Boeing, could be operational in a year.
NASA hopes to continue cooperation with Russia. She has offered spaces for cosmonauts on future missions, and wants Americans to continue to borrow Soyuz regularly.
But the negotiations are dragging on. “We want an exchange of seats”Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference on Friday. “Discussions are ongoing”, he simply said, an answer he has been giving for months now.
The reality is that the ties between Washington and Moscow in the space domain, one of the few where they remained good, are weakening. Breaking with more than 20 years of cooperation on the ISS, Russia will not participate in the next mini-station wanted by NASA around the Moon, the Gateway.
The boss of Roskosmos, Dmitri Rogozine, had joked in 2014 about the need for the United States of a “trampoline” to join the ISS. SpaceX boss Elon Musk has never forgotten the tackle and exclaimed in May: “the trampoline works”.
SpaceX has become Mr. Rogozin’s pet peeve. Besides becoming NASA’s carrier of choice, the company is a market leader in private satellite launches, and it has forced Russia to review its aging space program.
This summer, Roskosmos announced a project for a new reusable rocket, “not semi-reusable like at SpaceX,” said Dmitri Rogozine. “Our engineers (…) don’t want to repeat what their SpaceX colleagues are doing, but surpass them”.
But the simple fact that Roskosmos compares itself to a private company illustrates the new era the world has entered since the 2010s: space is no longer the monopoly of states.
Ultimate goal: to go to the moon and to Mars
The intensified US strategy under Donald Trump has been to privatize access to the Earth’s surroundings, that is to say to put the foot in the stirrup for SpaceX and Boeing with billions of dollars in contracts, so that they become service providers for NASA and for any person or private company, to the ISS or future private mini-stations.
“The ultimate goal is to have more means to do things for which there is no private market yet, like going to the Moon and to Mars,” he said. Jim Bridenstine said on Friday.
But the political alternation in Washington is a dangerous time for the space agency, which has yet to receive from Congress the tens of billions of dollars needed to finalize the Artemis program to return to the moon in 2024.
Mr Bridenstine himself has announced that he will step down, in order to let President-elect Joe Biden set his own spatial directions. To date, the Democrat has not taken over the date of 2024 to walk again on the Moon.