The Future of Spaceflight: Part Two

We are, I hope, entering into a new era of space travel and exploration: private, commercial spaceflight. Space travel was always the domain of governments: mainly the United States and the Russians, but others are now joining the club. For this series of articles, I thought we would take a look at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, both near-term and a little bit longer out.

The Now: Third Party Vendors

NASA currently has no means of its own to launch astronauts to space or resupply missions to the International Space Station.  It is working on the space shuttle replacement, Orion, but it will not be ready for manned flight until after 2020.  In the meantime, we need a way to get to space.  So NASA has turned to third parties to meet this need.

The only method we currently have for launching astronauts is the Russian Soyuz capsule.  NASA has a contract with Russia’s Federal Space Agency, for crew launches from 2013 to 2016 at about $63 million per seat. That’s pretty freakin’ expensive, even for normally expensive space launches.  For comparison, an average shuttle launch cost about $450 million and could carry 8 passengers, for a cost of about $56 million a seat.  Right now, this is our only option for getting to space.
However, NASA had anticipated this service gap.  In order to help fill the vacuum, government policy has shifted towards encouraging private, commercial spaceflight.  Under the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, PL 85-568, which is the act that created NASA, NASA has the power to enter into agreements with any entity in order to carry out its mission.  51 USC § 20113(e).  Under this provision, NASA created the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program, which is designed to coordinate private companies delivering first cargo and eventually crews to the International Space Station.

NASA has two contracts under this program: one with SpaceX and another with Orbital Sciences Corporation.  Both of these companies are using money from the program to develop spacecraft that are capable of delivering crew and cargo to space.  These companies have also signed separate agreements with NASA to do the actual deliveries of cargo, called Commercial Resupply Services.  You’ve probably heard of SpaceX before: they’ve already completed three dockings with the International Space Station, two of which were full resupply missions.  The first one was pretty big news.  Here’s a video of the launch:

SpaceX’s contract is for 12 total resupply missions at a total contract price of $1.6 billion, with options to add missions.  Orbital Sciences Corp. has a contract for 8 resupply missions starting in 2013 for a total contract price of $1.9 billion.

So, already NASA has regained the ability to resupply the International Space Station.  The next step is to launch our own astronauts again.

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