These days, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, is doing the work the space shuttles once did. Tonight, if weather conditions are good enough, SpaceX will launch astronauts from Cape Canaveral, Florida, again—three from NASA, and one from Japan’s space agency.
Read: American spaceflight is now in Elon Musk’s hands
As NASA ended the longtime shuttle program nearly a decade ago, it began another: an effort to use private companies to transport astronauts to and from space on the agency’s behalf. The successful flight of two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, earlier this year marked the most significant milestone in the program so far. It was the first time since 2011 that NASA astronauts launched from the United States, in an American-built vehicle, instead of from Kazakhstan, in a Russian-built vehicle.
SpaceX is now responsible for astronaut safety to a degree no private business has ever experienced. And as the company moves toward a future of regular astronaut flights, the lessons of the space-shuttle era are at the forefront. SpaceX employees have received briefings about the aftermath of the two space-shuttle disasters, which killed 14 astronauts, as well as a launchpad fire during the Apollo program that killed three. They’ve heard from veteran NASA employees about the mistakes the agency made and how to avoid them. Jordan said that when new engineers joined the project, they were given a tour of a room at the Kennedy Space Center, closed to the public, where shuttle debris was displayed, so that they wouldn’t forget the perilous nature of their work.
SpaceX has said that its first passengers were not in danger during their descent, that there was “nothing to be concerned” about. But the company decided to redesign part of the heat shield for future missions. The company also made a tweak to the capsule’s parachutes, which deployed closer to the water than engineers had anticipated. And it replaced two engines on the booster of its Falcon 9 rocket after a problem on a different, uncrewed mission shut down the flight right before liftoff.
Like the NASA engineers, SpaceX employees are acutely aware of their responsibility to these astronauts. When Benji Reed, the senior director for human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, comes to the Cape, he visits a set of seven oak trees—one for each astronaut who died on the Challenger—arranged in a circle on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. For Reed, who was in sixth grade when Challenger exploded, the small memorial reminds him of the weight of his work.
“We hold the lives of people in our hands; we transport them into space, stay there with them to be a lifeboat if they need it, and then bring them home to their family,” Reed told me this week. “We take it very, very seriously.”
In the early 1980s, after the country had put a dozen men on the moon, America turned its attention closer to home. NASA debuted space shuttles meant to carry astronauts into orbit as often as every week to conduct research, deploy satellites, and, eventually, assemble the International Space Station. Within a few years of the shuttle’s debut, astronauts were soaring into the sky every couple of months—not at the pace the agency had envisioned, but frequently enough that launches eventually stopped making front-page news. To renew interest—and to show Congress the program was worth the budget—NASA decided to fly its first non-astronaut, a teacher.