With the launch of four passengers to the International Space Station today, Elon Musk’s space company has put more humans in orbit than China.
The Chinese space program, widely seen as the biggest rival to NASA thanks to its funding and technical know-how, has flown 20 people to space since its first crewed mission nineteen years ago. Since May 2020, SpaceX has delivered 22 people to orbit with its crew Dragon spacecraft.
Today’s mission marked a number of firsts: The first all-civilian crew visiting the International Space Station, the first time a US spacecraft has flown passengers to the orbital habitat, and the first time a mission to the station was entirely privately organized and funded.
The flight was organized by Axiom Space, a US company that wants to build private orbital habitat which it will rent out to individuals, companies and national space agencies. For this mission, the three paying passengers are accompanying former NASA astronaut Michael López-Allegría to the station for an eight-day stay.
The participants—billionaires from the US, Israel, and Canada—will pay NASA to use ISS facilities during their time on orbit, and perform science projects they’ve designed in collaboration with research institutions.
For Axiom and NASA, the mission offers an opportunity to test out the procedures and technology needed for future commercial space missions. The US space agency hopes that when the ISS is retired, likely by the end of the decade, the agency’s scientists will continue their work in low-Earth orbit onboard privately operated habitats. That could free up resources to focus on more distant missions to the Moon and Mars.
China, meanwhile, is developing its own new space lab, called Tiangong, which is expected to be finished by the end of the year. Once fully operational, it’s likely that China will send astronauts to space at a higher cadence than it does currently. To do so, it uses the Shenzhou space capsule, a design based on Russia’s Soyuz, which can hold three astronauts.
Conversely, SpaceX’s crew Dragon, was an original design created in partnership with NASA through the commercial crew program. The cheapest human-carrying spacecraft ever built in the US, the Dragon can carry four astronauts and is reusable—the spacecraft used in today’s mission had flown three times previously.
The rapid pace of SpaceX’s hardware development emphasizes the strengths of the US public-private partnership model. With Russia’s space program falling behind on funding and cut off from international supply chains, and US competitors still catching up, the space race today may still be between SpaceX and China.