America is getting 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 Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies are slated to take over these flights over the next two years, funded by a $6.8 billion NASA initiative. 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 in drone capsules 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; on March 30 it launched its first reused rocket. The next phase for NASA is to use private companies 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 Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, 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 shifted 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. (President Donald Trump has asked NASA to put a new moon trip back on its to-do list.) 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. This was because NASA’s priorities had shifted to deep space. The agency is aiming for a human mission to Mars by 2033.
Private competition is bringing down the cost of space exploration. But the rockets fired by SpaceX and Blue Origin have been unmanned so far. The risks — and costs — are higher when human lives are at stake. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, designed to take visitors to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than into orbit, suffered a fatal crash during a test flight in 2014. A similar accident with passengers on board could be financially devastating to the nascent commercial space industry. Spacecraft are being designed with safety systems to push capsules away from malfunctioning rockets. NASA has few other options available for its astronauts right now. The agency has been 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 what politics could do to the Russians’ space taxi service. After the U.S. first imposed sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia responded by threatening to halt rocket engine exports to the U.S. and to stop collaborating on the International Space Station. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, even suggested that the U.S. could deliver astronauts to the space station “with a trampoline.” Tensions eventually died down; NASA still has Soyuz launches scheduled. But these rides aren’t guaranteed.
Video: How Elon Musk plans to send tourists to space
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
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