The four astronauts now on their way to the International Space Station are marking several firsts—the SpaceX Dragon’s first flight after being officially certified by NASA to fly humans, the first international astronaut onboard a commercial spacecraft, and the first time NASA has packed four people in a space capsule.
It’s also the first time the Federal Aviation Administration has licensed a crewed mission for the US space agency—the FAA has been licensing satellite launches since 1989, but flying astronauts to orbit was government business. The arrival of privately operated human spacecraft is changing that: Most NASA staff fly commercial when they travel between terrestrial research centers, and now they’ll do the same when they head for the national laboratory in orbit.
The pivot is a testament to the vision of commercial space advocates, in and out of government, since NASA began seriously investing in private spaceflight under president George W. Bush. That investment, expanded under subsequent presidents, enabled Elon Musk and his team to develop cost-saving innovations and make SpaceX one of the world’s most valuable private companies.
SpaceX transports cargo into space for the US government, foreign governments, and private firms around the world. Now, it can fly people, too, for governments and private companies—Axiom Space, a new space tourism company, announced that three private astronauts booked a Dragon for a trip to the ISS later in 2021. SpaceX is also a major satellite manufacturer and operator, and with its Starlink network, has set its sights on being a telecommunications provider as well.
There are other conglomerates that make space products, Boeing and Lockheed Martin chief among them. But neither firm has combined hardware and services up and down the value chain the way SpaceX has. Lockheed, for example, does