Lift Off: Private Sector Bringing Manned Spaceflight Back to U.S.

NASA made a big announcement yesterday that is out of this world: two companies (Boeing and SpaceX) have been selected to ferry humans from earth to the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing has completed all of NASA’s testing and will receive $4.2 billion while SpaceX has docked with ISS and will get $2.6 billion. Now, both companies will go through more rounds of testing, approval, and preparation to be the first private companies to get astronauts to ISS in low-earth orbit (about 250 miles up) sometime in 2017. The announcement is both a small step and a giant leap towards a cheaper, domestic, more efficient space capacity for a few reasons.

America has not had a way to get to the ISS without the assistance of the Russian space agency since the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. Though I say that this kind of international cooperation is a good thing, some feel that America should be able to lift astronauts into space ourselves; if not to avoid awkward foreign policy discussions with Russia, then it could at least give space travelers the comfort of not coming and going from earth in the Soyuz (an astronaut once said that ground landing is like a bad bus crash).

Either way, the introduction of two additional means to get up in space will offer choices and redundancy, the possibility of launching more standard missions, and, in the event we need an extra capsule up there, a chance to develop emergency response measures.

The announcement marks a milestone in what the Space Frontier Foundation has called a “20 year battle to secure commercial transport to ISS… .” This effort to help streamline and partially privatize space transportation is nothing new. Companies around the world have been launching their own rockets with private satellites since at least 1992, and NASA has employed third-party contractors both for the Apollo program and its shuttles. This was a market trend that was bound to lead to private companies taking up where NASA and other national space programs have left off. One could say that the developments were in spite of NASA’s efforts to keep space flight in the public sector.

In terms of public spending, expect the agreement to give more bang to your galactic tax buck. Right now, it costs $60 million per seat on Soyuz. On SpaceX’s Dragon, it will cost $20 million per person (and it can carry a seven-person crew as compared to Russia’s three-person phone booth). Put the Dragon up in orbit and you get cost savings right off the bat at the same level of safety (of course, NASA will be regulating these missions to at least the same if not a greater degree of scrutiny as shuttle flights).

Then consider the next generation of vehicles. NASA has been developing its Orion capsule for ten years, planning to eventually fly to the moon and Mars, but inconsistent mission and budget priorities in Washington have made the project expensive. Combined with Orion’s heavy-lift rocket -- the boringly named Space Launch System -- the project was expected to cost $18 billion in 2011.

SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, said he could do the same thing for $3 billion (even if he tripled that figure, taxpayers would still get cost savings). This means that, should the government continue to spend money on space travel, the evolution of private-sector design and transportation capacity will get more tonnage and people into orbit for less (and avoid political drama that can seemingly change with the wind). It also leaves NASA to study planetary science, what it is best suited to do (though there can be competition there too; I’d bet from academia rather than businesses).

One concern for taxpayers in light of these developments is where NASA’s incentives stop and true private competition starts. The explosion of rocket and space-focused companies has principally revolved around tourism (Virgin Galactic) and low-earth orbit (SpaceX and Boeing). Besides the prestige of being the first company to launch into orbit or get the first ISS-supply contract, there will come a time when Congress will need to decide when to wean companies off of government contracts. It will be easier once commercial space stations, like those being developed by Bigelow, are in orbit to accept the rockets and capsules and expand the market, but for now the important thing is that government let this new venture grow with as little interference as possible.

For you legislators out there, for now, just think of the Internet with rocket boosters and tang.