CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - Even by using the tools at his disposal at the Adler Planetarium situated along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Director of Astronomy Geza Gyuk acknowledges there is a limit to what he can see and do in understanding the cosmos.
"We've got a 24-inch telescope in the back of the Adler. It's not a great place to do observing because of all the light pollution from Chicago," he explained to VOA in an interview via Skype.
Gyuk said he and many other astronomers around the world depend on experiments and equipment - like the Hubble Telescope - deployed by astronauts above Earth's atmosphere to help them not only "see" the cosmos in new and different ways, but also to see the Earth from above.
The independent ability to launch crews into space to perform work and experiments is an important job that has been limited since the space shuttle era ended. Gyuk said he will be glued to his computer monitor this week when astronauts once again launch from the U.S. Space Coast in Florida.
"I will look at one of the livestreams and enjoy the spectacle," he said.
When space shuttle Atlantis touched down at Cape Canaveral July 21, 2011, few thought it would take more than eight years for astronauts to launch back into orbit from U.S. soil. The only way to the International Space Station (ISS) and back since that time has been via Russian rockets and capsules launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Now, when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lift off, reach orbit and rendezvous with the ISS, they mark an historic milestone in the U.S. space program in a system partially funded - but not produced - by Jim Bridenstine's National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Commercial Crew Program.
"NASA is not going to purchase, own or operate the hardware," Bridenstine explained at a news conference at Kennedy Space Center several weeks ahead of the launch. "In fact, we're going to be a customer. We're going to buy a service."
That service and hardware for this mission - a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft - is supplied by Space X, the first of several private companies in the new "space race" to regularly launch passengers commercially into Earth orbit.
To date, Space X has launched 22 Crew Dragon missions without a crew, 21 of them as tests or supply runs to the ISS.
But the mission dubbed "Space X Demo-2" is the first with passengers and comes while the world is coping with the spread of the coronavirus. The U.S. currently has the highest number of infections.
"We've been in, for intents and purposes now, a quarantine since about March 15," Hurley said to reporters in a preflight news conference. "We've been in quarantine probably longer than any other space crew has been in the history of the space program."
While Hurley and Behnken begin a mission that ushers in a new era of space flight, astronomer Gyuk points out it is also cheaper.
"A shuttle launch was about half a billion dollars," he explained to VOA. While the space shuttle could carry up to eight astronauts, it usually carried five to seven crew members. "A partially reusable Space X is expected to be around 50 million" per crew member, with the Dragon capsule eventually able to support up to seven passengers.
"The cheaper access is to space, the better. Cheaper launches mean more opportunity for us," Gyuk said.
Retired space shuttle astronaut Nicole Stott, who is participating in National Geographic's "Launch America" live global coverage of the Demo-2 blastoff, says it won't just be astronauts like her using the up-and-coming commercial systems, which also include Boeing's Starliner.
"I think the business model for any of these companies that are working right now in partnership with NASA, the business model is going to depend on them having business outside of just NASA astronauts flying on these spacecraft," Stott explained to VOA during a recent Skype interview. "That partnership allows NASA to facilitate new companies getting into the space business and will allow NASA to continue to do the work that will take us even further off the planet."
"That's really exciting, because that means the company - Space X - can also sell the seats to other people, like, maybe someday, me, if I want to go into space," Guyk said. "I just find that really exciting, because it's going to open up space to everyone eventually."
While commercial companies focus on transporting space travelers into Earth orbit and to the ISS, NASA has not abandoned developing its own space launch and crew system.
The agency is currently testing a next-generation rocket and "Orion" capsule as part of its "Artemis" program that will return astronauts - including the first woman - to the moon by 2024, with the ultimate goal of reaching Mars.
Elizabeth Lee contributed to this report.