Next month's SpaceX launch could help end America's reliance on Russian rockets

If it’s not delayed again, that is.

spacex iridium 8 launch
A SpaceX launch from earlier this yearSpaceX

It’s been nearly eight years since American astronauts last launched into space from American soil. When NASA shuttered the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, it did so under the hopes that the private industry would be willing and able to take a huge step forward and partner with the agency to ferry astronauts back and forth between the International Space Station, as well as other potential low Earth orbit destinations.

That vision is finally on the cusp of becoming reality. It just took much longer than we all hoped it would.

On March 2, if the weather proves favorable, SpaceX will finally launch its first spacecraft designed for human spaceflight, the Crew Dragon (a.k.a Dragon 2), into space, as part of its partnership with NASA under the Commercial Crew Program. There won't be any humans going up on this test flight (called Demo-1). But if everything goes right, it will be the prelude to a crewed test flight (Demo-2) featuring two astronauts in July, finally ending eight years of American reliance on Russia for its human spaceflight needs, and returning the country to independence once again.

“There’s a mixture of feelings,” says Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. “I don’t want to speak for the entire team, but for me personally, I have a combination of excitement and a little bit of anxiousness.”

How did we come to rely on Russian rockets?

Even before formally retiring the Space Shuttle program, NASA was already thinking about potential replacements. In 2010, after ending the Constellation program and its plans to send humans back to the moon, the Obama administration decided to shift the agency's human spaceflight focus toward developing the Space Launch System and the Orion deep space crew vehicle. This supported the more general goal to send humans to Mars sometime during the 2030s.

And while NASA focused on developing and testing new deep space exploration technologies, it could turn over its needs for getting to low Earth orbit to the private industry, which could ferry astronauts to and from the ISS and find its “space legs” as it developed its own technologies. The agency would simply partner with Russia in the meantime, getting its astronauts to the ISS through Soyuz missions launching from Kazakhstan for a few years. It was a win-win all around.

Thus, in 2014, the Commercial Crew Program was officially born. The agency signed contracts with Boeing and SpaceX, tasking the companies with developing and testing new spacecraft that could basically work as a lower-cost, more efficient, safer replacement of the Space Shuttle. At the time, NASA was already seeing great success with its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, which effectively contracted out ISS cargo shipment needs to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (later Orbital ATK, and recently bought by Northrop Grumman). It was an extraordinarily successful partnership, and NASA believed it could emulate this same paradigm as a part of its human spaceflight operations as well.

Unfortunately, CCP has been plagued with delays from virtually the outset. The original goal was to have SpaceX and Boeing strike for their first crewed missions by 2017. Two years later, both companies have yet to launch even an empty spacecraft into orbit. SpaceX’s delay of Demo-1 into next month seems more like business as usual at this point. (Boeing is aiming for its first uncrewed flight test no earlier than April, and its first crewed flight to take place in the late summer.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. is heading into its eighth year of procuring seats aboard Soyuz launches for getting its astronauts to the space station—and that has been far from a peaceful, reliable process. Amidst deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, NASA and Roscosmos (Russia's space agency) have done their best to keep ISS operations running smoothly. But Russia's decreased involvement with the ISS has limited the number of seats available to the U.S., at increased prices that have cost NASA billions of dollars. SpaceX and Boeing don't shoulder all the blame (Congress is arguably most at fault for inadequately funding the CCP early on), but they may already be feeling the effects of those frustrations: according to SpaceNews, schedule certainty was a factor for NASA choosing to go with United Launch Alliance instead of SpaceX for the upcoming Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter, launching in October 2021. (SpaceX has chosen to protest the contract, arguing it could launch Lucy for less money.)

The bottom line is, American access to the ISS has been relegated to a precarious and costly situation. NASA's access to the space station through Russia effectively ends in September, so any more delays could mean the U.S. loses access to the ISS entirely for a while.

What's taking so long?

McAlister counters that while the perception from the outside is a program riddled with delays and waiting, the mood behind the scenes is genial and relatively calm. “When you look historically at how long human spaceflight hardware takes to be developed, [CCP] has been a fairly quick development cycle,” he says. “I know we’ve slipped the schedule a couple of times, so people may think, ‘oh they’ve taken so long,’ but… we signed the contracts in September 2014. Four years later, to be talking about having our first test flights, really isn’t that long in the grand scheme things.”

It’s true: While the Crew Dragon is ostensibly an upgraded version of the original Dragon vehicle, it needs to be ready to house people for spaceflight—and that takes time. Companies must design comfortable and safe seating, an escape system, windows, dashboards for the crew to use to manage controls, and much more.

And from NASA’s perspective, the delays are not all that unexpected. “Generally,” says McAlister, “in the aerospace industry, we tend to like to establish aggressive schedules upfront.” This provides an incentive for the teams to move efficiently and leaves ample time for adjustments when obstacles and challenges come up. This mindset also explains why NASA frequently pushes back its own deadlines. The culture McAlister and his team have tried to instill is inspired by the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Be quick—but don’t hurry.”

Not even this year—the year of the test flights—is immune to schedule changes. “This next year is probably going to be one of the hardest years we’ve ever had,” says McAlister. “We’re going to have issues we need to address. Every launch has risks associated with their schedules.”

Has it been worth it?

That depends on how you look at it. There's no question both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner will act as cost-efficient flight systems in the long run. The average Space Shuttle launch cost about $450 million. Neither new spacecraft should cost that much—SpaceX in particular, thanks to its masterful work in proving the viability of reusable rockets. Every launch of the Falcon 9 rocket (which will take Crew Dragon into space) costs only about $62 million. Astronaut launches will presumably not cost much more.

In addition, both spacecraft will feature much better safety systems than were available on the Space Shuttle and other previous spaceflight systems. Both utilize what’s called a “pusher escape system” for launch abort sequences. In this scenario, during an anomaly that requires an abort, the system pushes the spacecraft away from the high-powered engines instead of pulling them, so you still have a propulsion system for maneuvering and altitude adjustment as the crew capsule returns to Earth.

Lastly, the CCP’s approach means NASA doesn’t have to rely on a single launch provider for its needs. “I think that has been a huge benefit for NASA,” says McAlister. It’s important for the government to not be dependent on any single system [alone].”

The recent mid-flight abort of the Soyuz MS-10 launch to the ISS underscores this point. The Russian Soyuz spaceflight system is one of the safest crew vehicles around, having been used for decades on hundreds of successful launches in orbit. "Even with all that flight heritage, it had a failure," says McAlister. "When you're depending on a single supplier… it really increases risks." Multiple suppliers mean multiple options when one company runs into a hiccup.

Everyone is anxiously waiting for the U.S. to return to spaceflight independence, but the CCP’s success could extend beyond just ISS missions. If Demo-1 goes smoothly and the rest of the year’s flights manage to send astronauts into space and back, the agency might very well start asking whether it can expand these types of partnerships to other areas of spaceflight as well, and leverage these technologies for other capabilities. NASA’s already developing its own spaceflight systems for future travel to the moon, Mars, and potentially elsewhere, but it’s certainly not outlandish to think a future version of the Crew Dragon—one designed for deep space missions—could play a role in those plans. For now, let’s just hope next month’s launch goes off without a hitch.