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April 26, 2011

US Space Program Goes Commercial

This Friday, the U.S. space shuttle Endeavor is scheduled to lift off on its last voyage to the orbiting International Space Station.  And on June 28, barring any last minute complications, Alantis  will become the last space shuttle ever to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center.  Both missions mark the end of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. But it is not the end of America’s space ventures.

Fifty years after a Redstone rocket carried the first American astronaut, Alan Shephard, into space, NASA is getting out of the business of sending astronauts on missions using its own spacecraft.  Instead, the U.S. space agency will rely on privately designed and owned rockets to ferry cargo and crew to the orbiting International Space Station.

The commercially built space vehicles are expected to be every bit as powerful and reliable as those operated by NASA, but they’ll cost American taxpayers far less. One company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, has signed a  $1.6 billion deal with NASA for 12 unmanned delivery flights to the space station.

SpaceX says the deal should lower the cost of launching cargo to about $1,000 per half kilogram - less than one-tenth of what it costs NASA to get a payload into outer space on the shuttle.

President Barack Obama is asking Congress to approve $850 million to aid the development of private rockets to service the orbiting scientific outpost. NASA administrator Charles Bolden says the budget will support a public-private partnership in space.

"We must have safe, reliable and affordable access to it for our astronauts and their supporting equipment.  That’s why this budget boosts funding for our partnership with the commercial space industry," Bolden said.

The private sector’s role in unmanned space operations - such as the manufacture of satellites and robotic spacecraft -- is nothing new. So says former NASA executive Alan Stern, now with the Southwest Research Institute, which offers technical assistance to the aerospace industry.

Stern says the private sector is promising to conduct space missions for a fraction of what they have traditionally cost NASA.  For example, SpaceX says it can reduce the cost of a launch, depending upon the rocket, to between $50 million and $100 million compared to the $1.5 billion price tag for each space shuttle mission.

Stern says this savings of dimes on the dollar benefits the private sector as well as the public.

"That’s a huge reduction in cost that’s going to allow us to have multiple space lines, and to be able to afford that. and to be able to do more things in space than we could in the past," Stern said.

Last year, SpaceX became the first commercial aerospace company to successfully launch, place into orbit and retrieve a spacecraft -- the Falcon 9, carrying an unmanned capsule called the Dragon.

The Dragon is being built as part of NASA’s $1.6 billion deal with SpaceX.  Company founder and CEO Elon Musk says the space agency has been pressing it to complete testing of the capsule, so it can go to the space station on a resupply mission at the end of this year.  However, news reports have quoted a top official in Russia’s manned space program as saying Russia will not allow the SpaceX rocket to dock with the space station until more extensive safety testing has been completed.

Safety is a big concern for the private rocket builders, too. Alan Stern says the companies are not cutting corners to keep costs down or to meet tight deadlines. He says they have a lot to lose if there are accidents.

"If the rockets fail or the capsules have problems, that’s going to affect their future business pretty strongly; in fact it could put them out of business.  And that’s a very strong motivation for any private concern," Stern said.

But there have been problems.  Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has a contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the space station, tried but failed in March to launch a climate satellite aboard its Taurus (XL)  rocket.  The $424 million payload was lost when the clamshell-like structure designed to protect the satellite enroute to orbit failed to open.

It was an exact replay of the company’s 2009 mishap, when a nosecone failure doomed a $270 million carbon-observing satellite. Both Orbital Sciences and NASA are investigating the twin accidents.

In the meantime, the company is continuing work on its Taurus II, an expendable medium class rocket that’s designed to deliver cargo to the International Space Station from a launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Island Facility in Virginia.

Recently, SpaceX announced plans for a demonstration flight of its new heavy lift vehicle, called the Falcon Heavy,  at the end of 2012 from NASA’s Cape Canaveral, Florida facility.
Company CEO Elon Musk says the Falcon Heavy will be one of the biggest rockets ever built.

"175,000 pounds (53 metric tons) is more than a fully loaded Boeing 737 with 136 passengers, luggage and fuel in orbit.  So that is really humongous," Musk said.
Founder Elon Musk believes the rocket will be powerful enough to carry the Dragon capsule to the moon and possibly even Mars.

NASA has just awarded four contracts totaling $270 million to four companies to develop manned space flight capabilities.  In the past, private aerospace companies built spacecraft and other hardware to NASA’s design specifications, with the space agency at the forefront of every decision.

Now, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, Ed Mango, says space vehicles will be designed and owned entirely by the commercial sector, with safety input from the space agency.

"In the end, we will pay that company a certain price to purchase a seat, if you want to look at it this way, purchase a ticket, in order to fly to get our crew from the surface of the Earth to the space station," Mango said.

Mango says those ‘tickets’ won’t be available until the middle of the decade. Until then, NASA will pay Russia $750 million for a dozen round trip seats aboard the Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station.