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 Corp. are slated to take over these flights in 2019, 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 in low-Earth orbit. To do this, it has relied on two companies, Elon Musk’s venture better known as SpaceX, which launched the first private resupply run to the station in 2013, and Orbital Sciences Corp., which began making deliveries in 2014. They’ll be joined by Sierra Nevada Corp. for missions beginning in 2020. Musk’s SpaceX is revolutionizing the rocket industry by re-landing booster rockets for reuse rather than letting them burn up while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. By recycling spacecraft as expensive to build as a Boeing 737 jet, Musk hopes to drive down costs to the point where consumers can become space explorers. Since SpaceX stuck its first successful re-landing on Dec. 21, 2015, the feat has almost become routine. On Feb. 6, 2018, the company launched the world’s most powerful rocket in 45 years, then flew two of its spent boosters back to the Florida coast for a spectacular, simultaneous upright landing. The next phase for NASA is to use private companies to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit, an effort already a year behind schedule. While SpaceX and Boeing will provide the initial charter flights, 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 is fostering a commercial space industry by subcontracting the work of sending humans to low-Earth orbit, technology it pioneered a half-century ago. The strategic shift started when the Obama administration in 2010 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 now roughly $80 million per trip. But the NASA’s commercial crew initiative to replace those rides, along with agency’s focus on deep space and an eventual human mission to Mars in the 2030s, are all subject to the whims of the U.S. president. In 2017, President Donald Trump asked NASA to put a new moon trip back on its to-do list. He has also proposed ending U.S funding for the International Space Station by 2025, potentially leaving the new generation of space taxis without a destination.
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. So spacecraft are being designed with safety systems to push capsules away from malfunctioning rockets. NASA has turned to private firms because it has few other options available for its astronauts right now. The agency has been a popular target of budget cutters, and advocates say it is 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 current Russian space taxi service if the U.S. return to human spaceflight is badly delayed. 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 the rides are only through the end of 2019.
Video: How Elon Musk plans to send tourists to space
First published Sept.
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