Private Companies to Provide the Rides
America is ready to launch astronauts back into space on vehicles made in the U.S.A. This time, private firms will provide the ride. Since its space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station, but that relationship faltered as U.S.-Russian tensions increased. Now NASA has awarded as much as $6.8 billion to Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies to handle the job. There’s more at stake than big government contracts: Space taxi builders hope transporting astronauts will lead to ferrying tourists.
While it marshals resources to explore deep space, NASA has handed off the ho-hum aspects of spaceflight closer to Earth, like delivering food and equipment to the International Space Station. To do this, it has relied on two companies, Elon Musk’s venture, Space Exploration Technologies, which launched the first private resupply run to the station in 2013, and Orbital Sciences, which began making deliveries in 2014. They’ll be joined by Sierra Nevada for missions beginning in 2019. Musk’s SpaceX hopes to reduce the cost of spaceflight 100-fold in the future by re-landing booster rockets for reuse rather than letting them burn up while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere; on Dec. 21, 2015, SpaceX stuck its first successful re-landing. The next phase in NASA’s commercialization plan is to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit by late this decade. SpaceX and Boeing won contracts to provide the initial charter flights to the space station. Sierra Nevada’s shuttle-like Dream Chaser and a spacecraft from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, may eventually provide a similar taxi service.
NASA sees little to be gained from taking on the work of sending humans to low-Earth orbit, technology it pioneered a half-century ago. The Obama administration decided to shift the space taxi role to commercial ventures in 2010, when it scuttled plans to build a shuttle replacement and a Bush-era program to revisit the moon. Since NASA’s manned missions ended, its astronauts heading to the space station have ridden on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for a fare of as much as $70 million per trip. NASA’s priorities have shifted to deep space. The agency hopes to travel to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, which could allow it to mine precious minerals or divert large objects headed for Earth, and it’s aiming for a human mission to Mars by 2033.
NASA’s privatization strategy has been criticized by Apollo astronauts, fearful that their mission of lunar exploration has been abandoned to China and India. Yet some argue that private competition will bring down the cost of space exploration. Companies vying to carry astronauts for NASA could use the same technology to carry tourists, though there are dangers. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, designed to take visitors to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than into orbit, crashed on a test flight in October 2014; a crash with passengers on board could be financially devastating. Private taxis headed to outer space are being designed with safety systems to push capsules away from malfunctioning rockets. NASA has few other options available for its astronauts. The agency remains a popular target of budget cutters and advocates say it’s better off saving capital for projects that will answer the question: “How far from Earth can humans go?” A more pressing question is how much longer the U.S. will be allowed to use the Russians’ space taxi service. NASA continued some joint programs after the U.S. first imposed sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in spring 2014 and still has Soyuz launches scheduled. But Russia responded to tougher sanctions by threatening to halt rocket engine exports to the U.S. and to stop collaborating on the International Space Station in 2020. In the meantime, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested that the U.S. could deliver astronauts to the space station “with a trampoline.”
The Reference Shelf
- The Houston Chronicle did a four-part series on the state of America’s space program.
- The Washington Post did a four-part series on NASA’s future.
- Space.com’s collection of articles on space tourism.
- BBC Future report: “Six reasons why space tourism matters.”
- Bloomberg QuickTakes on Space Mining and the New Space Race.
First published Sept. 5, 2014
To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Julie Johnsson in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org
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