Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on the day's biggest business stories

Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It would already be a huge event if Wednesday's SpaceX launch was just the return to launching astronauts on U.S. rockets for the first time in nearly a decade.

But throw in the fact that it will also be the first orbital launch of U.S. astronauts by a private company — and the fact that it's happening in the middle of a pandemic — and you have a seismic historical event. And it just might give Americans something inspiring to talk about at a time when everyone needs it.

  • That's assuming the launch is successful. If it isn't, it could turn into yet another blow to the nation's morale, rather than a break from all of the bad news that surrounds us.

Why it matters: The launch to the International Space Station will mark the first crewed rocket launch from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. That nine-year gap marks the longest stretch of time since Alan Shepard's first spaceflight in 1961 that the U.S. hasn't had the ability to launch its own astronauts.

  • And yes, this launch is going ahead even though most of the U.S. is still locked down by the coronavirus.
  • How is that possible? By keeping the crowds away, quarantining the astronauts — and testing them regularly so they don't carry the virus to the space station with them.

What's happening: Since 2011, NASA has relied on Russia's Soyuz rockets to launch their astronauts to the space station, but this launch is expected to be the beginning of the end of that reliance.

  • NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing to build vehicles to fly NASA astronauts to the station in 2014, kicking off the Commercial Crew program.
  • Now, a Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken is expected to take flight atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday from Florida.
  • "This is a new generation — a new era — in human spaceflight," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference in early May.

The big picture: The space program has provided this kind of hope during dark times for Americans before.

  • As the Apollo 8 capsule orbited the Moon in 1968 on Christmas Eve, the astronauts
    aboard read from the book of Genesis as millions of people watched back on Earth.
  • The broadcast provided a welcome respite to a tumultuous year that included the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
  • "This is still something that we're going to be successful at, and we're going to do it in the face of the pandemic," Behnken told Axios during a press conference on Friday.

Yes, but: This won't be the unbridled, patriotic moment that anyone was expecting when SpaceX and Boeing were announced as NASA's crewed launch partners.

  • Usually, crowds of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, flock to Florida's Space Coast to try to get a glimpse of a crewed flight as it takes off.
  • This time, however, NASA is asking that members of the public stay home and join in online instead of traveling to Kennedy Space Center for the launch in order to help protect their staff and others from possible exposure to the virus.

Between the lines: This launch will also mark the first time a private company using its own spacecraft and rocket design has lofted people to orbit, heralding in the dawn of a more mature space industry and a new age for spaceflight in the U.S.

  • While NASA's space shuttle was built by private companies under contract with the space agency, that program ended up costing NASA more than $1.5 billion per flight.
  • By contrast, SpaceX's development of the Crew Dragon — which is a far less complex vehicle than the shuttle — cost the agency about $1.7 billion even with years of delays.
  • The company will also be able to manufacture and use these spacecraft to fly private astronauts and even tourists to the station — and eventually beyond. (Tom Cruise reportedly hopes to shoot a movie with SpaceX on the station at some point.)
  • It's all part of NASA's grand plan to become a buyer of services in low-Earth orbit instead of a provider, allowing the agency to focus on other, bigger goals like getting humans to Mars.

The bottom line: If SpaceX can pull it off, its first crewed flight next week will mark a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark time for the world.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Aug 11, 2020 - Science

SpaceX and ULA pull in huge defense contracts

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes flight. Photo: SpaceX

The Space Force's announcement last week that United Launch Alliance and SpaceX will launch expensive spy satellites and other military payloads brings a long and often fierce battle for government funds to an end — at least for now.

Why it matters: This type of government money — particularly in light of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic — is key for space companies that often work on thin margins.

Prosecutor: Fatal police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. was "justified"

Khalil Ferebee (C), the son of Andrew Brown Jr., and attorneys Bakari Sellers (L) and Harry Daniel (R) at a May 11 news conference in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A North Carolina prosecutor said Tuesday that the death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man fatally shot by sheriff's deputies last month, was "tragic" but "justified," due to the immediate threat officers believed Brown posed.

Why it matters: The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into Brown's death. Police in Elizabeth City shot him five times, including in the back of his head, according to an independent autopsy report released by family attorneys last month.

McCarthy comes out against bipartisan deal on Jan. 6 commission

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will oppose a bipartisan deal announced last week that would form a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, his office announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: McCarthy's opposition to the deal, which was negotiated by the top Republican and Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, underscores the internal divisions that continue to plague the GOP in the wake of Jan. 6.