When the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched its first manned space flight in 1961, few thought about the impact of carbon emissions on the earth’s atmosphere, much less the ballooning costs of space exploration. All eyes were on the skies above. America’s task at hand wasn’t worrying about the material, dollar or environmental costs of a sky-high dream; the focus was making it happen.
But today, space engineers know differently. NASA’s financial costs for the government-run aeronautics program turned out to be far greater than the $20 a year that each U.S. citizen paid toward the program out of his or her taxes when it started. A rough estimate puts the cost of the NASA program at $200 billion — or $450 million per launch.
By the time NASA flew its last shuttle mission in 2011, it had put astronauts on the moon and figured out how to build the world’s first reusable spacecraft. It had proved space flight was possible. But it hadn’t proved that it was sustainable, either financially or ecologically. That would be the mission of the next wave of inventors: private startups with big aspirations and pragmatic, shoestring budgets.
Commercial space flight
NASA’s greatest operational strength has ironically been its weakness: a government size-budget that, through the use of contractor bidding, was able to outsource much of its need for technical construction. The U.S. aeronautics program of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s relied on government contracts with engineering firms that had the expertise to build the technology needed. But it came with increasing budgetary strain and concern about the sustainability of space flights.
In 2006, faced with the inevitable end of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA challenged private industry to develop sustainable cargo and transport systems to meet the needs of an international space station. To add incentive, NASA’s new administrator, Mike Griffin, earmarked $500 million for private space development. NASA’s new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) was born, and with it a new generation of aeronautics engineers, each with their own area of expertise and drive toward space.
The next mission: The sustainable, reusable spacecraft
One of the first challenges identified by the international space community was the need for a reusable spacecraft that was affordable and met the challenges of landing in a restricted environment. The NASA space shuttle — the world’s first reusable spacecraft — had the plus of being able to land with a modicum of comfort in the form of a conventional jet. But the design wasn’t necessarily practical or affordable.
Several private companies have made this goal part of their mission and are working to create a rocket that not only can launch from a pad, but also return safely to earth.
SpaceX, founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, compares the task to today’s busy commercial airliners. For it to be economically productive, the new craft must eventually be able to launch, deliver its payload and return several times a day.
On May 25, 2012, Space X made history when its Dragon spacecraft (transported by Space X’s two-stage rocket, the Falcon 9) became the first private spacecraft to visit the international space station. After separation from the rocket, the Dragon successfully docked at the ISS, which allowed U.S. astronauts to board and take air samples, and then load the Dragon with cargo en route to NASA. The spacecraft successfully returned to earth six days later, touching down in the Pacific Ocean about 450 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.
Since that time, the Falcon 9 has made several cargo trips to the space station, as part of a $2.6 billion contract with NASA. A stipulation of that contract is that SpaceX must also demonstrate that it would be able to transport astronauts to the ISS in future flights. SpaceX and Boeing, which was also awarded a contract, have until 2017 to meet the requirements for certification by NASA. A privately-operated manned spacecraft would not reduce the cost of current shuttle flights (at the moment NASA pays Russia $70 million per seat to shuttle U.S. astronauts to the station). But it would put private space flights within reach of NASA’s next goal: Mars.
So far, both Boeing and SpaceX are on track to meet NASA’s rigorous certification process. Both contractors received two orders for crew missions, due to take place in the next few years.
Once certified by NASA, SpaceX will be eligible to transport SpaceX’s manned Dragon V2 shuttle, a far cry from the early test model of 2012. The beefed-up shuttle will carry up to eight passengers and is expected to be able to land anywhere on earth, instead of parachuting into the ocean. The Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s most powerful rocket to date, will serve as the propulsion behind the shuttle. According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy will give the company the ability to not only to repeatedly transport crew to space stations, but also to land on the moon or Mars.
The commercial race for galactic space
SpaceX’s early forays into space proved that commercial flight innovation is possible. But it has by no means defined the boundaries of space innovation. Dozens of companies are now competing for a foothold in commercial aeronautics development, recognizing that the next frontier in travel and tourism will likely be in aerospace.
Blue Origin, owned by innovator and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is one such contender and has had its sights firmly set on the suborbital flight experience. The company attracted global attention after it proved in November 2015 that it could successfully launch a rocket to 329,839 feet and landed it safely in 119 mph crosswinds. In June of this year, Blue Origin was selected as one of several companies to compete in NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. Blue Origin, UP Aerospace, Virgin Galactic and three other competitors will go toe-to-toe to develop new technology for the agency’s suborbital space program.
Blue Origin’s greatest contribution to sustainable space development, however, may be its research into the BE-4 hydrogen engine. Fully and privately funded, it offers NASA a rocket engine with no out-of-pocket developmental costs. And as experts noted, it also provides a viable alternative to using Russia’s pricey shuttle services, while lending support to a low-emission propulsion system.
NASA’s accomplishments in space were once defined by the country’s largest and most established aerospace corporations — companies that had the track record behind them and a niche that could be used in government undertakings. Today’s galactic discoveries are being mapped out by small, bold, “ferocious” and fearless startups which realize that getting to the stars is only half the journey. And that it is their drive, both independently and collectively, that will decide what tomorrow looks like.