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How Elon Musk’s SpaceX is changing American space flight

It has been nearly a decade since an American space crew last lifted off from U.S. soil in a spacecraft built here. That's expected to change Wednesday afternoon with the relaunch of manned space flight. But the occasion will be very different from past launches, as this time, a private company is leading the way as a NASA partner. Miles O’Brien reports on the potentially “revolutionary” moment.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been nearly a decade since an American space crew last lifted off from U.S. soil in a spacecraft built here.

    That is expected to change tomorrow afternoon, with the relaunch of manned spaceflight. But it will be very different, with the private sector leading the way as a partner with NASA.

    Miles O'Brien has our report.

    It's the latest in our series of reports on breakthroughs on the Leading Edge of science.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the stage is reset for NASA's next act in space. What's been envisioned for years is now becoming real, nearly nine years after the last shuttle flew.

  • Bob Behnken:

    It's probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship. And I'm lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here, Doug Hurley.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be sporting some stylish new space suits when they are strapped into a Dragon capsule sitting atop a Falcon 9 rocket, all dressed up for a new way to go.

    It is the first crewed mission to the International Space Station on a vehicle designed and built by California-based SpaceX, founded 18 years ago by Elon Musk.

    In the history of space exploration, how big a deal is this launch, do you think?

  • Wayne Hale:

    Well, I think it could be revolutionary.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

  • Wayne Hale:

    If it works out the way that we all hope it does, and it starts a virtuous cycle of industry providing competitive transportation to low-Earth orbit, I think it will be great. But we don't know how it's going to turn out. It's an experiment.

  • Man:

    Liftoff, the final liftoff of Atlantis!

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The space shuttle, and every piloted NASA spacecraft that preceded it, was designed by civil servants and built by big aerospace companies, under close supervision, with lucrative cost-plus contracts.

  • Woman:

    Ignition. Liftoff.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    SpaceX signed a different sort of deal. It is providing a service to NASA, transportation to low-Earth orbit for a fixed price. And the company retains ownership of its intellectual property.

    This type of procurement works best when the company is going to have a market beyond what they're actually bidding for.

  • Lori Garver:

    So, they are going to put in their own skin in the game, because they recognize they're going to not only be able to service government requirements, but beyond that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Lori Garver was deputy NASA administrator during the Obama administration, which canceled NASA's Constellation program.

  • Man:

    Ignition. Liftoff of Ares I-X.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It had already begun testing a suite of spacecraft built in the traditional manner. The cancellation spun up a buzz saw of opposition from the contractors and allied politicians.

  • Lori Garver:

    There were all kinds of behind-the-scenes difficulties, companies just really trying to block this innovative way of doing things. Unfortunately, a lot of people have come to NASA because they just want to build a rocket, and they don't want someone else building it.

  • Man:

    The panel will be seated, please.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Current and former astronauts weren't happy either. In 2010, Apollo legends Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last man to walk on the moon, testified in Congress against this new way of doing business.

  • Neil Armstrong:

    I support the encouragement of newcomers towards the goal of lower-cost access to space, but having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman is an adviser to SpaceX.

  • Garrett Reisman:

    And the biggest fear, especially in the Astronaut Office, was that it would be somewhat risky, that there would be reckless decisions made in the name of innovation.

    And they just didn't trust this culture that was very different from the culture that they had grown up with at NASA.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Many at NASA were leery in the wake of early efforts to commercialize space by the cash-strapped Russians. They flew an inflatable Pepsi can, made Pizza Hut pies, and plugged a golf club with a shot off the space station.

  • Man:

    Play ball!

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In 2001, California entrepreneur Dennis Tito paid the Russians $20 million for a trip to the space station on a Soyuz rocket. He was the first of seven well-heeled tourists to do the same.

    Mike Lopez-Alegria is a former astronaut who later led the association that represents commercial space companies.

    Why were astronauts skeptical?

  • Mike Lopez-Alegria:

    It's a natural response. I mean, most of us had dreamed about doing what we were doing for a long time, and worked very hard to achieve it, gone through a lot of training.

    And to have somebody lay down some money and be able to join you and do the same thing and have the same experience is a little disheartening at first.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But SpaceX already had its nose in the NASA tent. In 2012, it began flying cargo to the space station using the Falcon 9 Dragon design. It's done that 21 times, with one failure.

    And, meanwhile, SpaceX rockets now dominate the commercial launch business, validating this public-private partnership. In all, Falcon 9 rockets have successfully flown to space more than 80 times.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Woman:

    Successful stage set.

  • Keith Cowing:

    If NASA has done the exact same thing, it would have cost many times more.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Keith Cowing is editor of NASAWatch.com.

  • Keith Cowing:

    They have done this many times with the exact same rocket, and after one accident, they fixed a few things. And NASA's saying, yes, it seems to be perfectly safe.

    And so now you have the ability to launch things in Falcon 9's that NASA may well now use in its trips back to the moon.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    NASA is building the rocket at the center of the Artemis moon missions under a cost-plus contract with Boeing.

    But it is years late and billions over budget. Meanwhile, SpaceX is developing a Buck Rogers-like rocket called Starship that NASA is considering as a vehicle to take astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

    The lessons learned and the savings accrued in low-Earth orbit are changing the way NASA thinks as it looks farther into space.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Vero Beach, Florida.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can watch the launch live tomorrow at 4:33 p.m. Eastern on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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