Sixty years ago NASA opened its doors. In just over a decade, the agency put a man on the moon and permanently expanded human perception. But in 2011, NASA’s space shuttle program ended and astronauts began hitching rides on Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. In 2014, the Obama administration put any plans for a new moon mission on hold indefinitely.
Space Policy Directive-1, however, has now driven NASA to embrace commercial space flight as a way to manage routine operations in low-earth orbit, while the agency develops plans for both manned moon landings and trips to Mars. With private companies ready for blast off in 2019 and looking to pave the way for large-scale commercial tourism, the future of space travel may be much closer than it appears.
Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth
As noted by NPR, the first commercial space flights carrying four NASA astronauts will launch in 2019. The upcoming flights are a test-run of sorts: If everything goes well, further missions will be scheduled to deliver and retrieve ISS crews, shuttle supplies and support other NASA low-earth initiatives.
They’re not without challenges: Astronauts used to taking the helm and making critical decisions will instead be along for the ride unless something goes wrong. In Air & Space, astronaut Bob Behnken described the shift to automation as “‘transitioning to allow humans to do things they’re good at, like recognizing when something’s not quite right. What we’re not good at is monitoring one parameter for hours and hours to make sure it’s perfect.'”
Getting it Right
“Space taxi” manufacturers also have to pass rigorous NASA tests to ensure their craft are up to the challenge. For example, issues with fuel pressure and cracked engine turbines prompted redesigns of the Falcon 9 rocket — NASA wants at least seven successful launches before signing off, along with five successful fueling runs designed to be carried out when crews are on board.
Boeing, meanwhile, must address concerns about a crew abort system that Air & Space noted could “tumble dangerously,” along with contact potential between the craft’s heat shield and parachute system.
Bottom line? If commercial companies can’t produce craft with odds of a fatal incident less than one in 270, NASA won’t green-light new space taxis.
Costs of Doing Business
Beyond a better way to reach the ISS than buying seats on a Soyuz, what’s the advantage of commercial space flight for NASA? According to Bloomberg, one major benefit is the cost savings yielded by the ability to re-use rockets by landing them upright rather than having them burn up on re-entry. The use of private companies also helps NASA leverage what amounts to a cloud model of space travel: The agency doesn’t pay for the hardware or maintenance, just the use of resources.
But when the future of space flight is driven by commercial interests, new costs must also be considered. As EnGadget points out, current NASA space crews are effectively elite athletes. Commercial space flight solutions will need to account for a wide variety of medical needs without sacrificing too much power, space and material consumption.
The Coming Age of Commercial Space Flight
So what happens if the 2019 flights are successful? Large aerospace companies and other smaller ventures will start ramping up private tourism opportunities and commercial offerings. According to Forbes Technology Council, increasing competition in this market will drive lower prices, while the advent of space mineral exploration will drive a kind of “goldrush” of companies looking to stake their claim.
Back to Basics
For NASA, commercial trips let them focus on the future of space flight from their perspective: getting to the moon and beyond. The agency has plans to build a lunar-orbiting station — the Gateway — by 2023, and land astronauts on the moon shortly after. The Insight Lander touched down on Mars Nov. 26, and in July 2020, NASA will launch its next Mars rover, laying the foundation for manned missions by the mid-2030s.
Space continues to fascinate and excite humankind. But the costs of space exploration are incredibly high, making it difficult for NASA to secure funding as budget restraint dominates government discussions. As noted by Time, however, the benefits are also substantial; exploration “is in effect a cultural conversation on the nature and meaning of human life.” Leveraging commercial space flight to defray routine costs, NASA has the chance to redefine the future of space travel and take first steps into the next phase of human space exploration.
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