Commercial Space Flight Goes Mainstream

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Commercial Space Flight Goes Mainstream

The mission of space travel has evolved over its brief history, changing to meet the different needs of the time.

  • Initially, it became part of the Cold War propaganda battle to determine which superpower had the better technology and know-how. Ultimately, the U.S. won that round.
  • The next phase was a time when the repeatability of round trips to low-Earth orbit was proven. With the grounding of the space shuttle program, that phase ended.
  • The third phase, which we are just entering, will focus on exploration, particularly missions beyond Earth orbit, to asteroids and even Mars. Research will be a key objective of all of these missions. But an equally important goal of this era will be to make all space travel a lot less expensive.

In the first two phases, although commercial enterprises were leveraged for equipment and spaceship components, it was NASA, a government body, which ran the show. Moving forward, this will change radically.

Already, NASA is outsourcing trips to space by paying Russia more than $60 million per seat to get our astronauts into space. NASA is looking to private commercial companies to provide this same service for less. The agency wants to off-load routine, low-Earth orbit space flight operations to commercial industry, outsourcing it just as large companies contract all sorts of services, from IT to payroll. The movement of freight will be the first service to be contracted, with the shuttling of astronauts to and from the space station coming later this decade, perhaps as early as 2017.

These commercial ventures will eventually grow to serve nongovernmental entities as well. They will provide:

  • Platforms for research
  • Orbital and sub-orbital delivery of payloads
  • Civilian rides into space
  • Eventually, “out-of-this-world” vacations

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As NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently summarized the concept, “It’s about actually using private industry to provide for access to low-Earth orbit while NASA goes off and does what NASA does best, and that’s exploring, doing things that private industry cannot do, or should not do.” Bolden was referring to NASA limiting itself to the “big risks,” such as manned missions to asteroids, or to Mars.

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To help encourage the commercial space industry, NASA has been spending an increasing amount of money.1 In 2009, it invested $50 million in a program called the Commercial Crew Development Program, and in 2011, it paid out another $270 million...

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