EVER since the demise of America's Space Shuttle programme, US astronauts had to hitch a ride on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station, a multi-national project involving five participating space agencies.
That all ended in dramatic fashion last Saturday when SpaceX launched its first-ever crewed mission, a test flight called Demo-2 that sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS. It was the first time since 2011 that US astronauts flew into orbit on an American-made space vehicle.
It also marked what could be the first of a new generation of commercial space flights. The fact that the launch took place during a time of extraordinary political and social turmoil is nothing new. The space race between the US and the USSR over who would get to the moon first was conducted during a tumultuous decade in the US that witnessed the Vietnam War, antiwar protests and race riots.
National pride was the fuel that led the US to land men on the moon on July 20, 1969. This time round, the younger generation of space cadets is driven not by politics but by profit. SpaceX is a long way from making money from commercial space activities, but with plans for asteroid mining, the next great fortunes could be made in space.
Asteroids are full of valuable metals and other resources so any successful asteroid mining venture could make an astronomical fortune, marking the gold rush of the 21st century.