Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega.
Speaker 2: The Final Frontier.
Tanzina Vega: We're headed to the heavens to round out our show today following some big space news this week. Ever since Russian, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, government built spaceships and national space programs have been the only way astronauts have been able to reach the final frontier. That changed on Sunday when NASA successfully sent four astronauts to the International Space Station on the SpaceX Dragon capsule created by Elon Musk.
It was the first privately-owned spacecraft used by NASA to send a crew to space. This launch was a giant leap for the private space industry and points us toward a future where space travel may no longer be reliant on the government. It's also come with a lot of expensive hiccups. Tim Fernholz is a senior reporter for Quartz and the author of Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race. Tim, welcome to the show.
Tim Fernholz: Hello, it's a pleasure to speak with you today.
Tanzina Vega: Thank you. I will just preface by saying that for Halloween this year, my nine-month-old son and I were astronauts. We are very committed to this segment. [chuckles] Tim, is space privatized?
Tim Fernholz: Not yet. What we're seeing in space is a transition, as you said, from where the government did everything to where private companies increasingly have the same or better capabilities. I think of it as now when NASA employees fly from Ames Research Center, here in California, over to Washington HQ, they take a commercial jet. Now, when NASA astronauts fly from Kennedy Space Center to the National Lab in space, they're going to take a privately owned vehicle too.
Tanzina Vega: Tim, tell us what does that mean for NASA because, over the weekend, Vice President Pence wrote an op-ed for Fox News saying that this was the "culmination of four years of work," and talking about how Donald Trump really helped make all of this possible. How much credit does the Trump administration deserve here?
Tim Fernholz: They deserve some credit. This is a program that began under President Bush, it continued under President Obama, and it finished under President Trump and Vice President Pence. It would be a shame not to mention the efforts of the previous administrations and the thousands of people at NASA and SpaceX and other companies who worked on these. It's not a new development, but it is the culmination of a lot of work. It is very exciting for the future of the commercial space world and for NASA.
Tanzina Vega: What are the goals with the SpaceX launch? Was it just to see whether or not a public-private partnership could work in space or were there other goals for the mission itself?
Tim Fernholz: We already know that public-private partnerships can work in space because NASA set up a program to fly cargo to the International Space Station. That worked really well. They said, "All right, let's do it with astronauts." This particular mission is notable because it's the first official non-test flight of this Dragon vehicle with astronauts on it. It really is business as usual, these four astronauts are going to go up to the International Space Station for about six months, do a bunch of different scientific experiments, work on the ISS, spacewalks, the whole shebang.
What it represents for NASA is cheaper access with the Crew Dragon is ultimately replacing is the space shuttle, which was very expensive. What NASA hopes is that working with private companies is going to allow it to spend more of its own money on things that aren't rockets, to spend it on science, on research, on space probes, on whatever.
Tanzina Vega: That was going to be my question. As more companies get into the space race, private companies, I should say, what effect do you think that would have on missions that are really driven by academic need or scientific research?
Tim Fernholz: Certainly, the hope at NASA and I think in the scientific community, is that these new technologies are going to enable more science. NASA is also, as a government agency, is charged with developing the economy too. NASA also hopes that we're going to see more business in space, orbital manufacturing, scientific research, tourism. The real hope for NASA is that eventually private companies are going to operate habitats in low Earth orbit so that when the International Space Station is eventually retired, NASA doesn't have to replace it. They can just go to someone else's station.
Tanzina Vega: Tim, you said tourism?
Tim Fernholz: I did indeed.
Tanzina Vega: Tell us more.
Tim Fernholz: It's not cheap. Actually, there's a company called Axiom Space that has announced that three people have booked a flight on the Dragon, supposedly next year, to go up to the ISS. NASA is excited about this because what it wants to do is prove that if you built a space habitat, you could make money there so someone else will build one and it doesn't have to. It's a bit controversial. There are people who worry that astronauts are not going to be able to do as much scientific work because they'll have to deal with whatever the tourists are doing.
The tourists are paying a lot of money to NASA to use the ISS. It's happened before. It's going to be an interesting experiment. People are skeptical. I think if it continues to create this virtuous cycle that people at NASA expect, it's going to overall expand the capability for not just wealthy people, but also scientists and companies and eventually, maybe even regular people to go into space.
Tanzina Vega: Eventually, regular people like us can get on a rocket, I don't know when, you think in 10, 15, 20 years from now.
Tim Fernholz: No, man. This is a terrible prediction to have to make. I would say regular people like us, maybe 20 years. The hope is that competition will drive down the cost. Our hopes really hang right now on Boeing, which is also building a new spacecraft for NASA. They're about a year or so behind SpaceX. Once we have two people competing, two companies competing to take us to space, hopefully, the ticket prices will go down.
Tanzina Vega: Do we see perhaps a resurgence because of all of this and people wanting to be astronauts or young people wanting to enter this space world?
Tim Fernholz: I think so. One exciting thing about this is since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, all US astronauts had flown to space from Kazakhstan with the Russian Space Agency. Earlier this year, during the first Dragon test flight and now after this week's launch, we have human spaceflight coming back to the United States. People are excited about that. SpaceX has made people excited about space again, and it's a shame that it's happening in the pandemic. If this was not a coronavirus time, I think we would have seen tens or hundreds of thousands of people in Florida to watch this launch.
Tanzina Vega: To watch the launch. There were folks watching it on television and online.
Tim Fernholz: Absolutely. We'll adapt to anything.
Tanzina Vega: That's right. Tim Fernholz is a senior reporter for Quartz and the author of Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race. Tim, thanks so much for joining us on this trip.
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