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David Mayeux hopes this weekend's planned event reignites interested in manned space exploration

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FARMINGTON — If the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida with two astronauts aboard as planned this weekend, one Farmington resident will be watching the event more intently than most viewers.

David Mayeux, the coordinator of the San Juan College Planetarium, describes the planned launch as a "momentous" occasion — and not just because it will end a nine-year period in which American astronauts have been unable to reach orbit under the power of an American spacecraft. The launch of the Crew Dragon also will be the first time American astronauts have traveled to orbit as passengers on a rocket designed, built and owned by a private company, marking an end to the long era in which national space agencies were the only entities to achieve that feat.

 "It'll be a milestone in our space exploration," Mayeux said.

The United States has not been totally absent from manned spaceflight over that nine-year period, as it has continued to send astronauts to the International Space Station by purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But that alternative has been pricey, costing $86 million per astronaut, and leading to a dimming of prestige for a country that once was the unrivaled leader in the space race.

Mayeux argues the United States still holds that crown — even if it has had to hitch rides for its astronauts from the Russians for nearly a decade — because of its accomplishments in unmanned space exploration. But he's very excited about this weekend's launch and acknowledged that a manned space mission carries with it a sense of excitement, and danger, that an uncrewed flight does not.

"If SpaceX can pull this off safely, it's nothing but an advantage (for the future of American manned space missions)," he said. "It'll give us a second avenue for manned space missions in addition to Orion (the long-delayed government spacecraft NASA plans to use to send astronauts back to the moon and beyond) and push competition and keep everybody on their toes."

Mayeux said he doesn't blame NASA for the way the American manned spaceflight program seemingly has stalled since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011.

"This was not a technological failure," he said, explaining that NASA did the best with what it had. Instead, he said, it was a lack of commitment to manned spaceflight on the part of the entire country that led to this situation. In Mayeux's mind, NASA is still the same can-do agency that safely put several astronauts on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s — something no other country has managed to do in the half century since then.

More recently, he noted, NASA has racked up an impressive string of lower-profile missions that have dramatically increased our understanding of our own solar system — and what lies beyond.

"NASA has pulled off some awesome successes in unmanned spacecraft," he said.

Still, nothing captures the public's imagination like seeing human beings being launched into the cold, dark void of space. Mayeux hopes this weekend's launch heralds the return of a time when American spacecraft are routinely employed for that purpose.

"The ability for us to place our own astronauts in orbit and beyond can't help but boost the prestige of our space agency and our own country," he said.

Mayeux was among those who were bothered by America's prolonged inability to launch its own astronauts into orbit — a situation some critics went so far as to label a national embarrassment.

"I would just about go that far, yes," he said. "That was actually quite a pet peeve of mine. This is a country that put together a program to go to the moon in less than 10 years. Then, for that same time period, we were not even able to get our own astronauts into orbit."

But that forgettable era could come to a close as soon as this weekend. Mayeux hopes the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon reignites public interest in America's manned space exploration program and gives the world something to focus on besides the COVID-19 pandemic, economic ruin, terrorism or partisan politics.

"I hope this sparks the imagination beyond the many negative things you see in the media," he said, citing the way the first manned mission to the moon in 1969 riveted television viewers around the globe. "What else can you point to that brings the world together in a positive way? … That's kind of the path toward 'Star Trek.'"

In many ways, manned space exploration is a triumph of the imagination, Mayeux said, adding that such ideas — when they have passion behind them — can catch on and spread like wildfire.

With so many Americans having been restricted to the banality of home life for the past two and a half months, that kind of thinking could find a very receptive audience, he said.

"It lets us expand beyond ourselves — our normal, homebound everyday environment," Mayeux said.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon is scheduled to lift off at 1:22 p.m. mountain time on May 30, weather permitting. If that launch is scrubbed, there is a backup launch window at 1 p.m. mountain time Sunday. The liftoff initially was scheduled for May 27, but that launch was scrubbed because of inclement weather.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.

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