Private companies are already sending cargo into space on their own, but no one is sending any people yet–for now, Americans can only get to space with help from the Russians. When commercial aerospace firms do start delivering Americans to space for the first time, they will not be wearing NASA meatball patches on their breast pockets.
Instead, commercial test pilots employed by spaceship builders will fly the first crewed missions, according to NASA officials. The space agency is letting the private firms bear that risk before exposing its own astronauts to a privately built ship.
Boeing has already announced it would send its own employees to space–just like the Mercury 7 astronauts were involved in their spaceships’ development, Boeing wants input from people who will eventually fly its CST-100. SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. are also building ships to ferry humans, and they, too, will send their own employees up first, according to NASA. The CST-100, SpaceX Dragon and shuttle-looking Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser are designed to carry a crew of up to seven astronauts.
The companies are already using NASA funds and NASA facilities to build the new ships, but NASA wants them to use their own employees first before the space agency will feel like their ships are safe. At a news briefing last week, Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said the space agency wanted to treat the new equipment like the military does–the company assumes the initial risk before handing over the keys, according to Universe Today. But this doesn’t mean there would be any safety shortcuts: “All of us have the same initiative, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting on top of the vehicle. It’s a person, and that person needs to fly safely and get back home to their families,” he said.
More than 50 years after they were unveiled to the world, the members of the Mercury 7 are still the stuff of legend. The military pilots who became our country’s first astronauts were unrivaled in their bravery, skill, and probably ego, launching the U.S. into the space age. Will their corporate successors inspire us the same way?