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With SpaceX's first astronaut launch, a new era of human spaceflight has dawned

We've gotten our hopes up before.

The success of NASA's Apollo moon missions half a century ago, for example, made Mars seem very much within reach for human explorers. Indeed, the space agency drew up plans to put boots on the Red Planet by the early 1980s, but shifting political and societal winds killed that idea in the cradle.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, which aimed to send astronauts back to the moon by the end of the 1990s and get people to Mars in the 2010s. His son, President George W. Bush, also aimed for a crewed lunar return, with a program called Constellation, whose contours were outlined in 2004. Each program was soon axed by the next administration to come into power.

Full coverage: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 astronaut launch explained

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch launches two NASA astronauts into orbit on a Crew Dragon spacecraft from Pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch launches two NASA astronauts into orbit on a Crew Dragon spacecraft from Pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30, 2020.  (Image credit: SpaceX)

So it's natural for space fans to greet the grand pronouncements occasioned by SpaceX's first crewed launch on Saturday (May 30) with a bit of skepticism. Yes, the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), the first orbital human spaceflight to depart from American soil since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, is a big deal. But does it really show that "the commercial space industry is the future," as President Donald Trump said shortly after liftoff?

Actually, it very well might. 

Demo-2 is far from a one-off, after all. It's a test flight designed to fully validate SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket for crewed missions to the ISS. The company holds a $2.6 billion NASA contract to conduct six such operational flights, the first of which is targeted for late August, provided Demo-2 goes well.

SpaceX is a highly ambitious company that has already accomplished a great deal in the final frontier; it's been flying robotic cargo flights to the ISS for NASA since 2012, for example. So, there's little reason to doubt SpaceX's ability to fulfill that contract, and to execute a variety of other missions in Earth orbit as well.

Elon Musk's company has in fact already inked Crew Dragon deals with other customers. For example, Houston-based company Axiom Space, which aims to build a commercial space station in Earth orbit, has booked a Crew Dragon flight to the ISS, with liftoff targeted in late 2021. And the space tourism outfit Space Adventures plans to use the capsule at around the same time, to carry passengers on a mission to high Earth orbit, far above the ISS. 

Then there's Boeing. Like SpaceX, Boeing signed a contract with NASA's Commercial Crew Program to fly six crewed missions to and from the ISS. Boeing will fulfill the deal with a capsule called CST-100 Starliner, which has made one uncrewed trip to orbit to date. 

That flight, which launched this past December, didn't go as planned; Starliner was supposed to meet up with the ISS but suffered a glitch with its onboard timing system and got trapped in the wrong orbit. But Boeing plans to refly the uncrewed ISS mission later this year and put astronauts on Starliner shortly thereafter, provided everything goes well.

Related: Four new US spaceships may start launching people into space soon

Activity is heating up in the suborbital realm as well. 

For example, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has already flown two piloted missions to suborbital space with its newest SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity. The company is in the final phases of its test campaign and looks poised to begin carrying space tourists aboard the six-passenger Unity soon.

And Blue Origin, the spaceflight company run by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, has reached space numerous times with its suborbital vehicle, known as New Shepard. Those test flights have been uncrewed to date, but it probably won't be long before New Shepard begins carrying customers as well.

The names on this list chip away at the skepticism even more. We aren't talking about cash-strapped startups here; Bezos is the world's richest man, and Musk and Branson are both billionaires. And Boeing is an aerospace giant with a long history of achievement in the human spaceflight realm. The company is the prime contractor for the ISS, for example, and it built the first stage of NASA's huge Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo moon missions. 

So there's real reason to hope that an exciting new era of human spaceflight has dawned — perhaps one that will even see people riding private spaceships to the moon, Mars and other destinations in deep space. 

Musk has long stressed that he founded SpaceX back in 2002 primarily to help humanity colonize the Red Planet, and the company is already building and testing prototypes of Starship, the vehicle designed to make that happen. And Bezos has repeatedly said that his overarching vision for Blue Origin involves helping to get millions of people living and working in space.

This coming private boom isn't booting NASA off the human-spaceflight block, of course. The space agency has deep space ambitions of its own. Its Artemis program aims to land two astronauts near the moon's south pole in 2024 and establish a long-term human presence on and around the moon by 2028. 

And the moon will be a stepping stone, if all goes according to NASA's plan, teaching the agency the skills and techniques required to put boots on Mars.

NASA wants to make that giant leap in the 2030s. We'll see if the political will and the funding hold long enough for the agency to do it.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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