SpaceX: Our Ticket Out of Here?

SpaceX: Our Ticket Out of Here?

In the wake of SpaceX’s launch of Crew Dragon, we explore a new era in which private companies reach for the stars and what this means for space tourism. Viewed from orbit, the imagined borders between race, religion and countries converge under one shared atmosphere. Is it possible we can find hope for the future 100km above Earth?

the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on
Saturday 30 May, a new universe of space exploration and tourism
took flight.

Crew Dragon’s successful voyage to the International Space
Station (ISS) was a small step for Elon Musk, who plans to make
humanity a “multi-planetary species” with his company SpaceX. For
mankind, it represented a giant leap in reclaiming the galaxy from
big government – or at least shifting its control to brands.

Astronauts haven’t been launched into space from US soil since
2011, when Nasa decommissioned its tired Space Shuttle. Instead, it
forked out an estimated $90 million for each seat on Russia’s Soyuz
spacecraft. Keen to reserve its time and resources for deep-space
exploration, the US agency created the Commercial Crew Program to
outsource the transport of cargo and crew to the likes of Boeing
and, of course, SpaceX.

When astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley set off from
Kennedy Space Centre last week, the shift from public to private
was noticeable. Gone were the dials and switches that once
decorated Nasa’s Space Shuttle; touchscreens were Crew Dragon’s
control panel of choice. Stepping out of a Tesla, the astronauts
would have looked at home on a movie set in their sleek

The change has also emboldened Trump, who is reinvigorating an
America-first, Cold War rhetoric, pledging that by 2024 – ahead of

and China
– the US will build a sustainable presence on the moon that could
mark the first step in a manned mission to Mars, and put the first
woman on the moon to boot. The US is also creating Space Force, the
first projection of the military 100km above ground level.

Yet gazing beyond aesthetics and political rhetoric, as orbit
(or thereabouts) opens up to the commercial marketplace, the space
race is no longer between countries but companies. It is the
playground of billionaire entrepreneurs, with big kids such as Jeff
Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic vying to
shuttle earthlings beyond the Kármán line.

Space tourism has been building up to this point for a couple of
decades. In 2001, US tour operator Space Adventures curated the
journey of Dennis Tito, an engineer who dropped $20 million to
spend eight days in orbit on the ISS via Roscosmos, Russia’s space
programme. Throughout the rest of the Noughties, just six more
private citizens would take the same trip.

With the advent of privately owned spacecraft, rumour has it
that Tom Cruise is planning to fly the Crew Dragon to film a movie
on the ISS. SpaceX plans to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku
Maezawa around the moon in 2023. In fact, Musk hopes to ferry
tourists to Mars for $500,000 within the next decade – no science
degree needed, just a few months of training. “ADVENTURERS WANTED.
Live for 10 days in space,” reads the website of tour operator
, which recently partnered with SpaceX. Its
experiences on offer include circumnavigating the moon, boarding
the ISS and being the first private citizen to walk in space.
Prices are available on request.

Commercial space tourism is lifting off. Spurred by a newly
competitive market, SpaceX reuses expensive kit by relanding the
booster rockets rather than letting them burn up in the atmosphere
or sitting on the bottom of the ocean. A boon for the environment?
Not really; Falcon 9 burns 440 tonnes of rocket fuel. But what this
means is that, by recycling machinery as expensive to build as a
Boeing 737, its capsule’s seat prices have the potential to fall
from the millions to the hundreds of thousands.

It’s a far cry from a Ryanair Boxing Day deal, but shrinking
prices do lower the entry barrier to space tourism. For
perspective, to launch a kilogram of material into orbit on
Nasa’s Space Shuttle costs $54,500; Falcon 9 can do the same for
$2,720 – that’s around 20 times less. SpaceX wants to drive down
costs further still with its reusable Starship rocket, currently
under development. Projected to cost just $2 million to launch, it
will, according to Musk, bring down costs tenfold from Falcon 9.
With the ability to put things into space for a mere $272 per kilo,
things like private space travel, space hotels and trillion-dollar
asteroid mining aren’t just a pipe dream.

It’s nevertheless going to be a good amount of time before we
hop on a rocket in the same way we do a plane, or take a long
weekend break in orbit, a sabbatical on the moon. And until we can
jump ship to Mars – whether or not the red planet is plastered with
Tesla adverts – it’s worth examining what, if any, immediate impact
Crew Dragon’s mission can have on our current psyche. While a
billionaire-owned contraption can’t physically propel us from the
ashes of this tumultuous year, does it at least have the ability to
lift our collective spirits?

It’s unlikely that’s how this story is going to play out. Cast
your mind back to 1968. Apollo’s first manned mission around the
moon took place in a world where political assassinations, the
Vietnam War, civil rights abuses and protests dominated the
headlines. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to today, as our
screens flick between footage of the world’s most technologically
advanced feat and a man dying in police custody as charts rise and
fall with the rates of death and unemployment.

It was a similar story in 1969. Neil Armstrong’s tentative steps
on the moon were held up as a beacon of collective joy, and yet
they also inspired soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron to write
Whitey on the Moon. Only decades later did we learn of hidden
figures such as Katherine Johnson and other black female
mathematicians who calculated the trajectories of the Apollo

Fast forward to May 2020 and Elon Musk said in a post-launch interview: “This event is something that
all of humanity can get excited about. It’s just a fundamentally
positive, good thing, and I think we need more good things in this

Pioneering space exploration and tourism are exciting. They do
have the ability to transform us economically, politically and even
socially. From space, you can’t see the two-metre berth we give our
neighbours. The imagined borders between race, religion and
countries converge under one shared atmosphere.

Yet while space tourism’s prices remain astronomical and its
journeys a relatively far-off reality, Crew Dragon’s mission is but
a brief distraction on the ground, and one that, for now, seems
only to increase the distance between those who have the freedom to
reach for the stars and others held back by more than gravity.

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