NASA says SpaceX launch is about hope, commerce, the moon, Mars — and China

NASA says the manned SpaceX launch is a step toward going back to the moon and getting to Mars. It’s also tied to U.S. national security as China challenges American dominance in space.

James Morhard, the deputy administrator of NASA since 2018, told the Washington Examiner that the launch scheduled for Saturday, after the first attempt was scrubbed earlier in the week due to stormy Florida weather at Cape Canaveral, is about “leading the beginning of a space revolution — and who leads in space will lead the world.”

Morhard said finally being able to again use American rockets to get astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond “is about having unfettered access to space” as he pointed out that “we have had to rely on the Russians — it’s been nine years since we’ve had a certified American rocket to carry our astronauts.” Ever since the space shuttle program shut down in 2011, the United States has had to hitch a ride on Russian soyuz rockets.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to take off from the Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EST on Saturday and dock with the International Space Station orbiting the Earth roughly 250 miles above the planet surface. The NASA astronauts will carry out their test mission aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft powered by Falcon 9 rockets.

NASA’s second-in-command pointed out that, in terms of U.S. national security, the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for space are ambitious.

“The People’s Republic of China has a parallel track with us to get into low earth orbit and to get a space station up there,” Morhand said. “They want to land a man on the moon by 2030.”

He pointed out that China has put together “a pretty ambitious effort” to land a vehicle on Mars successfully, with a possible launch window for that starting in July. He said the U.S. will be “watching closely.” The U.S. has successfully landed unmanned spacecraft on Mars eight times — along with “three really expensive craters.” The Chinese have yet to pull it off.

“So am I going to say we’re in a space race? No — but they’re trying to catch up,” Morhard said.

Morhard said other “milestones” include using reusable rockets and reusable capsules to transport astronauts and “no private company has ever launched humans into orbit until now.”

“This is a final test, but it’s an end-to-end test,” Morhard said. “We’re really looking at launch, getting into orbit, docking, undocking, de-orbiting, reentry, splashdown, and recovery.”

The NASA deputy said the public-private partnership could save money and spur innovation.

“There’s a real demand for research in low earth orbit, and it’s our intent to be able to create this and certify this crew transportation so we can get to low earth orbit,” Morhard said. “But we want to be a customer to SpaceX or Boeing, or whoever else can get certified. We really want to be one of many customers. And our intent is that we’ll have commercial space stations — we believe that there’s enough demand for them that the marketplace will start creating them.”

He said that the free market should get involved in low earth orbit innovation. “That way, we can focus on getting to the moon, having sustainability at the moon, keeping our international partners with us, and then using that in preparation to go to Mars and other places in deep space,” he said.

Morhard said that preparing to return to the moon permanently and getting a man to Mars means that “we have really got to get our muscle memory going again as far as launching astronauts.”

“We’ve gotta have a regular cadence of getting astronauts up into space,” he said, adding that is because “we want to be very comfortable when we send those astronauts up.”

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator since 2018, said Tuesday during a prelaunch press conference that there was tremendous significance in the launch.

“We are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. And this is a big moment in time,” Bridenstine said. “Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Our country has been through a lot, but this is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again.”

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said Wednesday that the launch was “one of those things that I think everyone, from all walks of life, from all spots of the political spectrum, in the United States and elsewhere, should be really excited that this is a thing made by humans for humans.”

“It’s our intent first to inspire the next generation, and it’s these stunning achievements that is going to do that,” Morhard said. “But it’s also to instill hope. You know, there’s a lot of suffering going on right now in the United States as well as the world, and we certainly hope that this will instill that hope for people that need it. And the third part of it is to unite the United States again … as well as the world.”

Morhard praised Bridenstine for helping get NASA to this point and said President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence deserve a lot of credit.

“This really starts with President Trump and Vice President Pence and their leadership,” Morhard said. “I know that a previous administration got this going, but we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the president and vice president. They have lit a fire under NASA to get to the moon and to get to Mars.”

Morhard made it clear that NASA would not force the launch if the conditions weren’t safe.

“This is a test, and this isn’t something we’re going to rush in any way,” Morhard said. “We always work with a sense of urgency to be ready to go fly, but we never rush.”

Morhard pointed out that Apollo 12 got hit by lightning twice in 1969, and, in 1987, NASA lost an Atlas-Centaur vehicle that was struck by lightning. “It’s serious, and there’s nothing more important than protecting Doug and Bob’s lives,” he said.

End-to-end coverage of the launch can be viewed on NASA TV.

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