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Will Commercial Companies Be the Next to Take on Space Travel?

Would you sign up if the founder of Amazon offered to send you into space? How about the man behind PayPal or the engineers at Boeing? Let's explore some of the commercial companies who are the major players in NASA's efforts to once again send crewed missions into space.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #173

In July of 2011, NASA terminated its space shuttle program. Any efforts to transport people, supplies, or science experiments to the International Space Station (and of course, beyond) now rely on the Russian Soyuz capsule, a rental that costs in the neighborhood of $70 million a trip.

So NASA was faced with a financial challenge: how could they keep the space program going without owning and maintaining the vehicles themselves or relying on the Russian program which is ultimately a competitor in the space race?

Thus the commercial crew initiative was born. NASA began entering into contracts with private companies developing their own vehicles for the transportation of supplies, and eventually crews, into space. The companies then retain the intellectual property for their designs and, of course, the vehicles themselves, but the price tag for NASA drops from the billions of dollars needed to build and maintain a shuttle to what was an initial investment of around $500 million. (Although, as we shall see, that number has now far been surpassed.)

Not everyone at NASA was convinced that allowing commercial companies to dock at the roughly $100 billion International Space Station (ISS for short) was a good idea, especially since it often serves as home for international astronauts, but commercial companies have now been ferrying supplies and science experiments to the ISS since the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft first accomplished the task in 2012.

NASA maintains a site explaining all of the ongoing science experiments on the ISS, experiments that benefit either from the microgravity environment or from an outsider’s perspective on the Earth. For example, the HICO spectrometer onboard the ISS is used to monitor the quality of U.S. drinking water by monitoring the coastlines of oceans as well as the Great Lakes for harmful algae or oil spills.

Other companies, like Planet Labs, Inc., uses the ISS as a launching point for their fleet of nanosatellites, which work to map the Earth near the equator where most of the world’s population and agriculture is located. They monitor issues like deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural yields at a more frequent rate than any existing government or commercial satellites.

Private companies have also been contracted to launch government satellites into space, like the DSCOVR satellite, short for Deep Space Climate Observatory, a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force. SpaceX delivered the satellite, which will monitor the Sun for potentially dangerous solar storms, into orbit earlier this year.

The next step in NASA’s commercial crew initiative is the transport of not just supplies but also crew members. Although that may sound like a daunting task, the most optimistic predictions have commercial space flight companies delivering NASA astronauts to the ISS as early as 2017! Both Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (better known as SpaceX) have received paid contracts from NASA to deliver manned (and woman-ed!) missions to the ISS.

Boeing and the CST-100 Spacecraft

The Boeing Company, a major player in both the commercial and defense aircraft design industries, received the first commercial order from NASA to the tune of $4.2 billion to develop its CST-100 (for Crew Space Transportation) space taxi. The capsule fits seven passengers and is designed to be reused up to 10 times. The vehicle further is designed to do all of its docking autonomously so that less training time is required for any potential crew.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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