A Final Commercial Frontier

By Mark R. Whittington
Saturday, October 21, 2006

A new type of space race ended this summer when NASA picked two winners for the innovative Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program.

The firms, SpaceX of El Segundo, Calif., and Rocketplane Kistler of Oklahoma City, will over the next five years split almost $500 million in installments, based on performance milestones, to demonstrate their capability to deliver cargo and people to the international space station. Each company has also pledged private financing to supplement the NASA money. Around 2010, when the space shuttle is scheduled for retirement, not only these but other companies will bid for contracts to fly up to six missions a year to the space station.

If the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program works, NASA will have a low-cost way to service the space station, freeing up money for exploration of the moon and Mars. Companies will get a lot of help developing the space vehicles of the future, which promise to lower the cost and increase the reliability of space travel. The help will consist of not just dollars but also the kind of expertise and access to facilities that only NASA can offer.

Low-cost, reliable space flight should lead to the development of all sorts of markets for the new, entrepreneurial space companies. Space tourism, as it is being developed by Virgin Galactic, is just one of them.

Robert Bigelow, the Las Vegas hotel magnate, is developing a "space hotel" using inflatable modules based on the TransHab technology developed by NASA. The prototype, a one-third-scale module called Genesis 1, was launched and deployed a few weeks ago. By 2012 Bigelow hopes that a full-fledged private space station will be open to tourists, science researchers and others.

Bigelow will need private vehicles to take customers to his space hotel. Toward that end, he has started a competition that will award $50 million to the first U.S. company that, using only private financing, demonstrates an ability to fly people and cargo to low Earth orbit.

NASA envisions private companies launching refueling ships to top off the tanks of its exploration ships, thus increasing the payloads that can be sent to the moon and Mars. Privately built orbiting "space factories," like the Industrial Space Facility proposed in the 1980s, could be serviced by low-cost, private spacecraft. The cheaper and more reliable that space flight becomes through technological innovation and private competition, the more things can be done in space. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program could serve as a precedent for a more ambitious competition.

Twenty years from now, NASA envisions astronauts living and working on the moon on a permanent basis. Transporting crews to and from a lunar base and keeping them supplied will be expensive using NASA's planned Ares family of rockets.

Meanwhile, the economic development of low Earth orbit will have been facilitated by commercial space transportation companies that the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program helped to nurture. Seeing this, a future NASA administrator could conclude that what worked before might well work again.

So a competition could be announced in which money would be awarded to companies able to demonstrate the ability to deliver people and cargo to the moon. Private companies would step up to the challenge of building commercial moon ships. Within a few years, relatively low-cost and reliable transportation to the moon could be a reality.

A pipe dream? Perhaps. But a person born just before Apollo 11, when the moon was the unknown frontier, could live to visit Earth's nearest neighbor just by buying a ticket, provided he or she was well-off and healthy enough.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of "Children of Apollo."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company