What are NASA astronauts doing these days

Nasa used to ridicule Elon Musk. Let this weirdo blow up his fortune. Today she is dependent on him

After almost ten years, a manned space flight starts again from the USA. It could be the first step towards colonizing our solar system.

The year 2020 could one day have a similar meaning for a human-settled solar system as the year 1620 for the USA. At that time, the Pilgrim Fathers, who mostly came from England, arrived in North America on the "Mayflower" in order to start a new life there. And today, 400 years later, humans take off into space from American soil.

Just as the Pilgrim Fathers were not the first Europeans to settle in America, the NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were not the first people in space. But like the Pilgrim Fathers, Hurley and Behnken are pioneers: the establishment of the Pilgrim Fathers' settlement is often seen as the first step in the creation of the United States. And the flight of Hurley and Behnken could go down in history books as the first step towards colonization of the solar system, as the beginning of the transformation of humanity into an interplanetary species.

The launch, scheduled for May 27, is something special in several respects: It is the first manned space flight from American soil since 2011 - for almost a decade the US was dependent on expensive opportunities to fly in Russian Soyuz rockets. It is also the first manned space flight into orbit with a privately-built vehicle.

Both the “Falcon-9” launch vehicle and the “Dragon” space capsule come from SpaceX. And both rocket and capsule are reusable. It is this reusability that could now open the gateway to space for mankind, as it makes space travel affordable to a degree that seemed impossible ten years ago.

It was a fast race

Sixty years ago it seemed as if mankind was about to depart for space - to the moon, Mars and the depths of the solar system. In the 1960s, the USA and the Soviet Union engaged in a rapid race for dominance in space, driven by rocket scientists from Germany recruited by the victorious powers after the Second World War.

Initially, the Soviet Union was ahead of the curve: in 1957 Sputnik was the first satellite, and in 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the earth. But the USA quickly caught up with its ambitious Gemini and Apollo programs: In July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.

The door into space seemed wide open: The then head of the Apollo lunar program, the German space visionary Wernher von Braun, was already developing plans for huge space stations in orbit around the earth, for permanently inhabited stations on the moon and for manned flights to Mars.

But it turned out differently. The interest of the American public in further moon landings sank rapidly, the Apollo program also came under political criticism because of its immense costs - and was finally ended prematurely by the then US President Richard Nixon.

To avoid the cost trap, the American space agency began developing a reusable spaceplane. But the space shuttle turned out to be a fiasco: One space shuttle exploded when it took off, another burned up when it reentered the earth's atmosphere.

In addition, each flight cost an average of $ 2.25 billion - compared to about $ 420 million per Apollo mission. And instead of going to the moon, the shuttles only flew in low-earth orbits, mostly to the International Space Station. The last space shuttle mission finally took place in July 2011.

A colony on Mars

A few years earlier, Elon Musk, a new actor entered the stage. The US entrepreneur, who was born in South Africa and has become a multi-billionaire through his participation in the online payment system Paypal, founded SpaceX in 2002 and began developing his own rockets. From the beginning he had a vision: to make space travel affordable in order to found a colony on Mars.

His goal is to have one million people living on Mars within fifty years - and thus save mankind from extinction as a result of a global catastrophe. Musk's solution to the cost problem of space travel: reusable rockets instead of shuttles.

At NASA you just shook your head at Musk. Rockets, according to the space experts, were after all disposable items. What were you patting your thighs with laughter when the first SpaceX Falcon rockets exploded - let this weirdo blow up his fortune?

But the entrepreneur was successful. In September 2008, a Falcon-1 became the first private spacecraft to enter Earth orbit. Ten months later, a SpaceX rocket transported a satellite into orbit for the first time for a fee.

The skeptics of NASA became customers: SpaceX has been carrying out supply flights to the ISS on a regular basis since 2012. Because the flights with the further developed Falcon-9 are at about a third of the costs considerably cheaper than those with the Boeing Delta-IV usually used by NASA.

On December 22, 2015, SpaceX finally achieved what NASA had previously considered impossible: For the first time, the main stage of an orbital launcher landed softly on Earth again: Elon Musk heralded the age of reusable rockets and further reduced the cost of its launches further.

So now the launch of two astronauts with a Falcon rocket on board a Dragon capsule, both reusable. Here, too, SpaceX has beaten its competitor Boeing: Their Starliner capsule, developed in parallel on behalf of NASA, is not yet operational due to problems with the software control. In addition, it will take off with a conventional Lockheed-Martin Atlas V launcher - a disposable rocket. In the future, SpaceX will transport four astronauts to the ISS and from there to Earth once a year for NASA.

Visits to the space station

The Dragon capsule can carry up to seven people - that makes the spacecraft all the more interesting for space tourism. The US company Space Adventures already offers flights with the Dragon capsule, which should lead two to three times further out into space than the space station circling at an altitude of 400 kilometers.

That would be a new altitude record for space tourists, and it would allow a view of the earth that no one has had since the last Apollo mission in 1972. So far, Space Adventures has arranged for seven people to stay on board the ISS for one to two weeks between 2001 and 2009. Such visits to the space station should be possible again in the future.

With all of this, SpaceX isn't the only company to compete with state space agencies. Musk's fiercest competitor is currently the richest man in the world: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin are developing reusable rockets for suborbital tourist flights as well as for trips to earth orbit. Blue Origin is also developing a lunar module for NASA - again in direct competition with SpaceX.

In four years' time, US President Trump wants people to set foot on the moon again as part of the Artemis project - this time not just for short missions, but to stay there. Permanently manned research stations, astronomical observatories on the far side of the moon and, last but not least, the mining of raw materials such as helium-3, which could play an important role in future fusion reactors, are conceivable.

The founder of the space company Virgin Galactic comes from a completely different economic sector than Musk and Bezos: The British Richard Branson earned his first millions in the music business. Today he owns an extensive corporate empire - and offers Virgin Galactic for $ 200,000 suborbital flights on the "Space Ship Two" up to a height of just over 100 kilometers, that is to just over the official limit of space.

Perhaps Elon Musk will manage to inspire a whole generation with his Mars project, like the Apollo project once did.

At the same time, Branson is trying to get into the satellite business with his "Launcher One" rocket launched from an airplane. After a number of failures and accidents, both Space Ship Two and Launcher One have now passed numerous successful tests. Launcher One is scheduled to launch a satellite for NASA into orbit as early as July.

When the tourist flights with Space Ship Two will start is still uncertain - in any case, Branson wants to be on board personally on the first commercial flight.

Personal goals also drive Elon Musk. «I hope to die on Mars. Not on impact, ”said the entrepreneur years ago: He should not be one of the first settlers on the Red Planet:“ I will only fly when it is certain that SpaceX can do without me. ” Because Musk and his vision are still the driving force behind the company.

SpaceX is extremely successful with the Falcon missiles. But instead of resting on it, Musk is already investing in a new technology: With the space vehicle “Starship” and the launcher rocket “Super Heavy”, SpaceX is developing a new type of large rocket, which is itself the Saturn V of the Apollo, parallel to numerous satellite launches and the upcoming first manned flights Project in terms of capacity.

The first test flights of a Starship prototype are already possible in these weeks - a first flight into orbit this year, first commercial missions in 2021. A sightseeing flight around the moon is planned for 2023, booked by the Japanese multibillionaire Yusaku Maezawa. He wants to invite six to eight famous artists to take this trip “to inspire them like never before”. A year later, a modified star ship could drop NASA astronauts on the moon - because the US space agency is also relying on the new rocket for its plans.

Permanent settlement on Mars

The main task of Starship / Super Heavy is, Musk leaves no doubt about that, the colonization of our neighboring planet. Only every two years do Earth and Mars orbits around the Sun so favorably relative to each other that fast flights to Mars are possible. Musk plans to take this opportunity in 2024 - a very ambitious schedule. Because first of all, unmanned test flights are necessary, equipment and supplies have to be transported to the Red Planet in advance.

But whether 2024 or later: the goal remains to create a permanent, growing settlement.

It takes more than a spaceship to do this. SpaceX is already relying on mass production in the current development phase and completes another Starship every month. In two years' time, a Starship / Super Heavy team will roll off the production line every week. In total, a fleet of 1,000 spaceships is planned for the transport of colonists to Mars - with the flight costing a comparatively affordable $ 200,000 per person. Without a return ticket, of course.

Truly ambitious plans. And again there are those who think Musk is a dreamer. But perhaps the entrepreneur will manage to inspire a whole generation with his Mars project, as the Apollo project did sixty years ago. Maybe everything will take longer than planned. Perhaps colonizing Mars makes no more sense than colonizing Antarctica.

However, if Starship is a success like the Falcon rockets are currently doing, then this new spaceship has the potential to open the door to the solar system wide and also to enable flights to other destinations - to Venus, to the asteroids, to the moons of Jupiter.

Then the year 2020 may really be the beginning of a new space age.


From Gagarin to Musk

An overview of the history of manned space travel.
By Patrick Imhasly

1957–1959

When the beeps of Sputnik 1 went around the world in October 1957, they heralded the start of the great race in space between the Soviet Union and the USA. With Sputnik 1, the Russians have succeeded in putting the first artificial earth satellite into orbit around the earth.

People should follow. But first it is the turn of the laboratory animals. On November 3, 1957, the Russians shot the dog Laika aboard Sputnik 2 into space - she pays for the trip with her life. The rhesus monkey Sam fared better in 1959, who spent 11 minutes in space on behalf of the Americans and only almost died on landing.

1961

In April of this year, the Soviet Union, in the person of the cosmonaut and Colonel of the Air Force Yuri Gagarin, succeeded in bringing a person into space for the first time and making him orbit the earth once in 106 minutes.

The Americans are following suit. Three weeks after Gagarin's premiere, they catapult the military test pilot Alan Shepard into space aboard a Mercury Redstone rocket. It does not orbit the earth like its competitor, but flies a ballistic trajectory in the space capsule called "Freedom" and reaches an altitude of 187 kilometers. On May 25, US President John F. Kennedy announced in his famous speech to Congress and on television that he would bring people to the moon by the end of the decade.

1969

The Apollo program reaches its climax. On July 20, at 8:17 p.m. Universal Time, Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to step on the moon and proclaim: "This is a small step for a person, but a great leap for mankind." Three years later, the Americans fly to the moon for the last time as part of the Apollo 17 mission. Then the program is shortened and terminated.

1986

On January 28, the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after take-off. In 2003 the "Columbia" burned up when it re-entered the atmosphere. In 2011 the space shuttle program will be discontinued. Now the Americans are dependent on the Russian space transporters for manned flights.

1998

The construction of the International Space Station ISS begins. It is a cooperation between 16 countries and represents the largest structure of mankind outside the earth. Since November 2nd, 2000, the ISS has been continuously inhabited by space travelers.

2012

Since this year, Elon Musk's private company SpaceX has been carrying out supply flights to the ISS with the Falcon 9 rocket. Three years later, what the experts at the US space agency NASA had thought impossible: For the first time, the main stage of an orbital launcher landed softly on Earth again: Musk heralded the age of reusable rockets - with massively reduced costs.