America is getting ready to launch astronauts back into space on vehicles made in the USA. 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. That is scheduled to change on May 27, when Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. plans to  launch its first manned mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Musk’s company, known as SpaceX, and Boeing Co. are taking over these flights under 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.

The Situation

Shuttling astronauts to the space station is the next phase in NASA’s program to hand off the ho-hum aspects of spaceflight closer to Earth while it marshals resources to explore deep space. While SpaceX and Boeing will provide the initial charter flights, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s shuttle-like Dream Chaser and a spacecraft from Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, may eventually provide a similar taxi service. Already, NASA relies on commercial outfits to deliver food and equipment in drone capsules to the space station, which circles the planet at a distance of about 220 miles, (354 kilometers). That’s well within what’s known as low-Earth orbit, which extends to 2,000 kilometers out. SpaceX launched the first private resupply run to the station in 2013, and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman Corp.) began making deliveries in 2014. They’ll be joined as well by Sierra Nevada. Musk’s SpaceX is revolutionizing the rocket industry by re-landing booster rockets for reuse rather than letting them burn up while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. By recycling machinery 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 Background

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 President Barack Obama’s administration in 2010 scuttled plans to build a shuttle replacement and revisit the moon. After NASA’s manned missions ended, its astronauts began heading to the space station on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for a fare of now roughly $80 million per trip. That arrangement turned fraught after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia responded by threatening to halt rocket engine exports to the U.S. and to stop collaborating on the 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.

The Argument

Private competition is bringing down the cost of space exploration. But 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’s turn to private firms is designed to save capital for projects that will answer the question: “How far from Earth can humans go?”  But those priorities, as well as 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 space station by 2025, potentially leaving the new generation of space taxis without a destination.

Video: How Elon Musk plans to send tourists to space

The Reference Shelf

• Bloomberg Businessweek checked in on all things Musk as the launch date neared.

• Popular Mechanics looked at the 20 biggest space missions of the next decade. 

• The Pew Research Center surveyed Americans on the future of space exploration.

• Space.com’s collection of articles on space tourism.

• Bloomberg News articles on the race between Boeing and SpaceX to carry people to space and a plan for the first luxury hotel in space. 

• Bloomberg QuickTakes on the New Space Race and Elon Musk.

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