The crowds were back. Lining the beaches and the causeways, they fixed their binoculars on the same launchpad that first sent men to the moon.
But this time the draw wasn’t the NASA heroes of the 1960s Space Age — Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong — who paved a path to the lunar surface. Instead it was a puckish and eccentric billionaire with a big new rocket and a penchant for showmanship.
The launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy from the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday was the latest in a series of milestones that have revived interest in space, as well as the sacrosanct stretch of sand along the Florida coast that has witnessed so many epic flights through the atmosphere. The hotels were full, the press room overflowing, and the traffic near the Kennedy Space Center was bumper to bumper.
Musk’s triumph Tuesday in a SpaceX test flight that sent a sports car deep into space may have been something of a cross-promotional stunt involving Tesla, one of his other companies. But it also marked a turning point for a budding commercial space industry that has raised the stakes for itself by promising big things. Now the question is whether it can maintain its momentum and live up to the promise of returning humans to space while landing spacecraft on the surface of the moon — inherently difficult and dangerous endeavors, even for NASA.
SpaceX’s launch comes as the Trump administration is looking to restructure the role of NASA, ensuring that private enterprise and international partners work closely with the space agency.
Later this month, Vice President Pence and the rest of the National Space Council will hold their second meeting, this time at the Kennedy Space Center, to discuss the role that companies such as SpaceX could play in the country’s ambitions to return to the moon and explore the cosmos.
As the council, which was reconstituted under Trump, convenes, one major question it will have to grapple with is: “How can we best spend our resources as a nation to ensure the most robust space portfolio we can?” said Phil Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a former SpaceX spokesman.
Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator who pushed for a greater reliance on the commercial sector during the Obama administration, said the launch of Falcon Heavy should spark a change in the way NASA operates.
“This much delayed, much maligned rocket is just what the space agency needs to escape from the governmental bureaucracy that has bound her to Low Earth Orbit for the past forty-five years,” she wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, the traditionalists at NASA don’t share this view and have feared this moment since the day the program was announced seven years ago.”
The Falcon Heavy launch was a milestone not only because it became the most powerful rocket in operation, but also because it boosted its payload, the Tesla Roadster, out of Earth’s orbit on a trajectory around the sun that Musk said would take it out farther than Mars to the asteroid belt.
SpaceX had outfitted the vehicle with three cameras that beamed back stunning images of the ruby-red car soaring through the blackness of space, with the Earth a blue orb in the distance.
As impressive as the launch was, SpaceX still faces a far greater test: flying astronauts. For all the hype and hoopla surrounding the launch of a $200,000 sports car with a space-suited mannequin named “Starman” at the wheel, SpaceX has never flown a rocket with a human being on board.
While the industry has had a number of triumphs, “that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy,” said Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who also served as the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Taking humans to space should never be taken for granted.”
Along with Boeing, SpaceX is under contract from NASA to deliver astronauts to the space station. Though there have been setbacks and delays, both companies say the first flights with humans could take place this year.
Virgin Galactic, the space company founded by Richard Branson, and Jeffrey P. Bezos’s Blue Origin also could fly humans for the first time this year, on suborbital jaunts that could reach the edge of space. (Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, also owns The Washington Post.)
As the space council mulls how best to involve commercial companies in its plans, its exploits so far have begun to attract attention on Florida’s Space Coast, reviving an area that was hit hard when the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
For about a decade, SpaceX has been a presence here, including making use of Pad 39A, scene of some of the crucial Apollo and space shuttle missions. More recently, Blue Origin is rehabilitating a historic launchpad here and has recently built a massive manufacturing facility where it plans to build its next-generation rocket, New Glenn.
OneWeb, which plans to put up constellations of thousands of satellites to beam the Internet to remote corners of the world, is building a manufacturing site of its own nearby.
Boeing has taken over an old shuttle facility at the Kennedy Space Center and is making improvements to a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch site in preparation for the first flights of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the shuttle.
The shuttle landing strip could be used by Virgin Orbit to launch small satellites.
And then there’s Moon Express, the first commercial entity to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly out of Earth’s orbit to deep space. It plans to fly a robotic lander to the surface of the moon.
In some ways, Moon Express is already moving ahead under a new model in which it partners with government agencies to achieve a first for a private company: landing a rover on the moon.
“The challenges of space are immense, and the risks are huge,” Bob Richards, the founder and chief executive of Moon Express, said in a statement. “But the innovations, convictions and entrepreneurial drive of the commercial space sector, in partnership with government, will achieve new economics and permanence for the expansion of Earth’s social and economic sphere to the Moon and beyond.”