May 26, 2020

Axios Space

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  • We have a very special edition today: It's all about tomorrow's history-making crewed SpaceX launch.

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1 big thing: A reckoning for Russia's space program

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX's first attempt at launching astronauts from American soil this week is a historic moment that will stress the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Russia in space, my colleague Alison Snyder and I write.

Why it matters: Since the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated intimately in space. As the U.S. regains the ability to launch people with its own rockets, the future of Russia's already struggling civil space program — and how the U.S. will collaborate with it — is unclear.

Where it stands: For nine years, Russian rockets have been the only ride to orbit for U.S. astronauts.

  • A seat on the Soyuz rocket, which experts say hasn't evolved much since the 1960s, cost NASA $80 million on average in recent years.
  • Roscosmos's 2020 budget is the equivalent of roughly $1.7 billion; in 2014, it was about $5 billion.
  • NASA, with a 2020 budget of $22.6 billion, spent approximately $1 billion between 2017 — when SpaceX and Boeing were initially expected to start flying astronauts — and 2019 to fly its people on the Soyuz.

What's happening: If SpaceX — and Boeing, which has its own crewed spacecraft program and contract with NASA — can deliver astronauts to space, the U.S. plans to stop purchasing flights from Russia.

  • NASA just bought what the agency expects to be its last purchased seat for $90 million.
  • Instead, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hopes NASA and Russia will trade seats on flights with one another instead of paying for them, maintaining redundancy and the relationship in the process.

On top of the revenue loss from crewed launches, Russia's program has taken several other hits recently.

"It is a nightmare scenario for the Russian space agency," one industry expert tells Axios. "We’re building a replacement to every rocket and spacecraft they provide."

What they're saying: Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, accused SpaceX of predatory pricing to squeeze others out of the launch industry.

  • In April, Rogozin told Russian President Vladimir Putin the agency is lowering its launch cost "by more than 30%" to better compete in the international market.
  • Roscosmos did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

What to watch: Experts say Russia could turn to existing partners — the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese, for example — as customers. It could also turn to tourists and other governments looking to get into space (the UAE, for one). But those are small markets.

  • They could also look to China, but China has its own technology and plans in motion, including a space station, a lunar orbiter and more.
  • "The [ISS] program was developed in the midst of a complex relationship," says Mike French of the Aerospace Industries Association, who says the same shouldn't be ruled out because of today's geopolitical landscape.

The big question: "Are we going to go back to the Great Powers having individual space programs and everyone picks teams, or is there still an opportunity for everyone to collaborate on one big program?" asks Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.

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2. How to watch the SpaceX launch

SpaceX's Crew Dragon awaiting launch. Photo: SpaceX

When SpaceX stages its first crewed launch on Wednesday, millions of people will likely tune in to watch it live on TV or directly through NASA and SpaceX via livestream.

Why it matters: Due to social distancing requirements, NASA has asked that members of the public refrain from going to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the historic launch.

Details: The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS is expected to occur at 4:33pm ET tomorrow.

  • NASA will start its live coverage of the event at noon ET starting with live shots of the launch pad via NASA TV. The astronauts should load in to the capsule at around 2pm ET.
  • If you want to know exactly what to expect during launch and after, check out this sleek animation from SpaceX showing the major milestones during the flight.
  • The space agency is also planning to air continuous coverage of the launch up through the Crew Dragon's docking with the space station about 19 hours after launch.

But, but, but: As with any rocket launch, particularly those involving humans, there's no guarantee this mission will get off the pad on schedule.

  • At the moment, the U.S. Air Force is predicting a 60% chance that weather conditions will be favorable for launch on Wednesday.
  • Because the Crew Dragon has an abort system that would take the capsule far from a failing rocket in the event of a mishap, allowing it to splash down safely in the ocean, weather also has to be good at various points along the Eastern seaboard, making weather conditions a limiting factor for an on-time launch.
  • If the rocket doesn't get off the pad on Wednesday, the next launch opportunity would be Saturday.
3. The other commercial crew partner

Boeing's Starliner. Photo: NASA

As SpaceX and NASA gear up for the big launch on Wednesday, Boeing is still waiting in the wings for its crewed debut.

Why it matters: While SpaceX is getting all the glory right now as the first company to make it to the pad to launch astronauts, Boeing has also been working toward the same goal since 2014.

  • "There's a little personal disappointment, but in the end ... it comes down to the fact that it's got to be done," Boeing's test pilot astronaut Chris Ferguson told Axios.

Background: Boeing's development of its Starliner capsule has encountered some recent issues.

  • The company's uncrewed test flight in December ended earlier than planned when the spacecraft couldn't make it to the space station due to issues that cropped up not long after launch.
  • Boeing — which is in the process of fixing the issues that lead to the troubled test — will now need to re-do that uncrewed flight later this year before moving on to its first mission with astronaut onboard.

Between the lines: Both companies have been working together and with NASA to get to their first crewed launches, but there has been fierce competition along the way.

  • Boeing — a longtime NASA contractor — was seen as having the distinct advantage over SpaceX, which, when it was picked for the program, was regarded as the young upstart built on a billionaire's dreams.

Yes, but: Ferguson sees the crewed SpaceX launch as something of an advantage for Boeing.

  • SpaceX going first will allow Boeing to track how the company's plans for the lead up to launch differ from their own.
  • "I'll watch the whole thing," Ferguson said. "I hope to soak it all in as not just a competitor/partner but as a curious astronaut."
Bonus: Rocket of the week — SpaceX's Falcon 9

A Falcon 9 rocket. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has been the company's reliable workhorse for years, and this week, with its first crewed flight, the rocket could put the Elon Musk-founded company into the history books as the first commercial entity to launch people to orbit.

Why it matters: The Falcon 9's reusability and price point have changed the space industry, forcing stalwarts of the launch business to change things up and become more nimble.

Details: SpaceX advertises a $62 million price tag for its Falcon 9 on its website.

  • The company has staged 83 launches with the nine-engine rocket and re-flown 31 boosters.
  • SpaceX has also performed 44 Falcon 9 first-stage booster landings.

Between the lines: That reusability is key to SpaceX's business model.

  • Instead of using boosters one time and effectively discarding the expensive hardware, by bringing them back to Earth and refurbishing them, the company is able to save money.
  • Musk sees that reusability as one of the key advantages over the Soyuz and rockets of its ilk.
  • Driving down costs to make space more accessible to a variety of customers is also key to SpaceX's goal of helping to establish a city on Mars one day and Musk sees reusability as the way to get there.
4. Out of this world reading list

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

What it's like to be first to fly a brand new spacecraft (Daniel Oberhaus, Wired)

The astronaut wives know exactly what to expect (Marina Koren, The Atlantic)

How the Crew Dragon mission could shape the future of commercial space (Loren Grush, The Verge)

Virgin Orbit's first launch attempt fails (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Hope during coronavirus: Return to space (Axios)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: A rocket launch seen from space

Photo: NASA

A rocket launch seen from Earth is a special thing, but seeing one from space? There's probably nothing like it.

  • This photo, taken by NASA astronaut Christina Koch last year, shows a Soyuz spacecraft carrying new crewmembers to join her on the International Space Station.
  • The Soyuz docked with the orbiting outpost only a few hours after this photo was snapped.

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