Will commercial companies be the next to take on space travel?

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  • Boeing and the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation are the winners in the competition to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA announced on Tuesday.
  • The awards reflect a fundamental shift in NASA’s human spaceflight program, relying on private companies rather than the traditional hands-on approach, in which the space agency designed and operated the spacecraft.
  • The first flights could take off as soon as 2017.

“We have credible plans for both companies to get there by that period of time,” Kathryn Lueders, the manager for NASA’s commercial crew program, said during a news conference on Tuesday. “We will not sacrifice crew safety for that goal.”

Boeing received a $4.2 billion contract. Space Exploration Technologies — better known as SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif. — received a $2.6 billion contract.

“Today we’re one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia,” said Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator.

Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA has had no way to send its astronauts into orbit, relying on the venerable Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the International Space Station at a cost of $70 million per seat.

That became a politically uncomfortable arrangement after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

John Mulholland, commercial crew manager at Boeing, said NASA had called just before the news conference to tell him his company had won the competition.

Under the contracts, Boeing and SpaceX will finish development of their spacecraft. Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, configured to carry up to five people, will launch on an Atlas 5 rocket. SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule, a sleeker, updated version of the capsule already carrying cargo to the space station, will ride on top of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The bids from the two companies covered the same tasks. Boeing’s proposal was more expensive, in part because the Atlas 5 is more expensive than the Falcon 9.

A third company, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, of Louisville, Colo., had proposed a design that resembled a mini-space shuttle that would land on aircraft runways. A statement from the company said it would review its options.

Much of the money allotted to SpaceX and Boeing in the next three years will go to meeting NASA’s certification requirements for performance and safety. As part of that process, each company will conduct a test flight to the space station with a crew that is to include at least one NASA astronaut.

Once the companies are certified, NASA has promised each at least two missions. The full contract amounts will be paid if NASA orders six missions from each company.

VideoWill Commercial Companies Be the Next to Take on Space Travel?Charles F. Bolden Jr., NASA administrator, announced Boeing and SpaceX as the winners of the competition to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station.CreditCredit…Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Mr. Mulholland said NASA had yet to discuss its plans in detail, but space agency officials in the past have said they expected two flights a year to the space station. If flights begin in 2017 and each company flies one a year, the contracts could run through 2023.

With each flight taking four astronauts, the space station crew will be able to grow to seven, from six. NASA officials said that additional crew member would allow the agency to double the amount of science conducted.

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

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.)

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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.

SpaceX to fly private astronauts to space station for startup Axiom in 2021

Axiom Space, a start-up based in Houston, Texas, and SpaceX are teaming up to launch a team of four private astronauts to the International Space Station as early as next year.

The companies have signed a deal in which SpaceX will fly three private astronauts and an Axiom-trained mission commander to the space station, Axiom announced today (March 5). This 10-day mission is set to launch in the second half of 2021, Axiom said in a statement.

  • The trip will include at least eight days on the International Space Station and two days of travel time to and from the orbiting laboratory, Axiom added. 
  • In photos: The world's first space tourists
  • The private spaceflight will also include “training, mission planning, hardware development, life support, medical support, crew provisions, hardware and safety certifications, on-orbit operations and overall mission management,” according to Axiom's statement. 

This is not the first time that tourists have flown to the space station. However, as Axiom said in the statement, it will be “the first-ever fully private” trip to the station. 

“This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space,” Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said in the statement. “This will be just the first of many missions to ISS to be completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space – a first for a commercial entity.”

A decade of commercial space travel – what’s next?

In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along – a new technology, business model or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.

But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.

This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow Oct. 9, 1957. The satellite measured 1 foot, 11 inches and weighed 184 pounds. The Space Age began as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit, on Oct. 4, 1957. AP Photo/TASS

When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’.

That milestone – the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit – ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond.

What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?

While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry.

In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel – all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises.

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We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.

The new global space industry

When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears.

The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books.

The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.

Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase – openness – with private, commercial companies leading the way.

The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets.

According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year.

The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.

In 2018 to date, there have been 72 orbital launches, an average of two per week, from launch pads in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand and the U.S.

The uptick in orbital launches of actual rockets as well as spacecraft launches, which includes satellites and probes launched from space, coincides with this openness over the past decade.

More governments, firms and even amateurs engage in various spacecraft launches than ever before. With more entities involved, innovation has flourished. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization – it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”

Worldwide launches into space. Orbital launches include manned and unmanned spaceships launched into orbital flight from Earth. Spacecraft launches include all vehicles such as spaceships, satellites and probes launched from Earth or space. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in space, Decision Sciences; Space Launch Report (Kyle 2017); Spacecraft Encyclopedia (Lafleur 2017), CC BY-ND

One can see this vitality plainly in the news. On Sept. 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned rovers, dubbed Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid.

For perspective, the scale of this landing is similar to hitting a 6-centimeter target from 20,000 kilometers away.

And earlier this year, people around the world watched in awe as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and – more impressively – returned its two boosters to a landing pad in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.

Challenges and opportunities

Amidst the growth of capital, firms and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners must figure out how entities should manage their daily operations, organize their supply chain and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the hurdles space poses: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments and information scarcity.

One of the greatest challenges involves actually getting the things people want in space, into space. Manufacturing everything on Earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive.

A company called Made In Space is taking a different approach by maintaining an additive manufacturing facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing right in space. Tools, spare parts and medical devices for the crew can all be created on demand.

The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. In addition, certain products can be produced better in space than on Earth, such as pure optical fiber.

How should companies determine the value of manufacturing in space? Where should capacity be built and how should it be scaled up? The figure below breaks up the origin and destination of goods between Earth and space and arranges products into quadrants. Humans have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on Earth – for use on Earth. Moving clockwise from there, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.

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A framework of Earth-space operations. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in Space, Decision Sciences, CC BY-ND

I first became interested in this particular problem as I listened to a panel of robotics experts discuss building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant).

You can’t build the structures on Earth and easily send them to Mars, so you must manufacture there. But putting human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic.

Essentially, an entirely new mode of production using robots and automation in an advance envoy may be required.

Resources in space

Human spaceflight

“Space traveler” redirects here. For other uses, see Space traveler (disambiguation).

Space travel by humans
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, 1969International Space Station crewmember Tracy Caldwell Dyson views the Earth, 2010Space Shuttle Discovery heads into space with a crew aboard, STS-121 in 2006Astronaut Jeff Wisoff on Space Shuttle Endeavour's Canadarm, 1993

Human spaceflight (also referred to as crewed spaceflight or manned spaceflight) is space travel with a crew or passengers aboard the spacecraft. Spacecraft carrying people may be operated directly, by human crew, or it may be either remotely operated from ground stations on Earth or be autonomous, able to carry out a specific mission with no human involvement.

The first human in space was Yuri Gagarin, who flew the Vostok 1 spacecraft, launched by the Soviet Union on 12 April 1961 as part of the Vostok program.

Humans have flown to the Moon nine times from 1968 to 1972 in the United States Apollo program, and have been continuously present in space for 19 years and 220 days on the International Space Station.

[1] All human spaceflight has so far been human-piloted, with the first autonomous human-carrying spacecraft under design starting in 2015.

Russia and China have human spaceflight capability with the Soyuz program and Shenzhou program. In the United States, SpaceShipTwo reached the edge of space in 2018; this was the first crewed spaceflight from the US since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.

Currently, all expeditions to the International Space Station use Soyuz vehicles, which remain attached to the station to allow quick return if needed.

The United States is developing commercial crew transportation to facilitate domestic access to the ISS, low Earth orbit and beyond such as the Orion vehicle and the private SpaceX Starship.

While spaceflight has typically been a government-directed activity, commercial spaceflight has gradually been taking on a greater role.

The first private human spaceflight took place on 21 June 2004, when SpaceShipOne conducted a suborbital flight, and a number of non-governmental companies have been working to develop a space tourism industry.

NASA has also played a role to stimulate private spaceflight through programs such as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Crew Development (CCDev).

With its 2011 budget proposals released in 2010,[2] the Obama administration moved towards a model where commercial companies would supply NASA with transportation services of both people and cargo transport to low Earth orbit. The vehicles used for these services could then serve both NASA and potential commercial customers. Commercial resupply of ISS began two years after the retirement of the Shuttle, and commercial crew launches could begin by 2020.[3]


Main article: History of spaceflight

Cold War era

Main article: Space Race
Vostok space capsule, which carried the first human into orbit
Neil Armstrong became the first human to land and walk on the Moon, July 1969.

Human spaceflight capability was first developed during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR), which developed the first intercontinental ballistic missile rockets to deliver nuclear weapons. These rockets were large enough to be adapted to carry the first artificial satellites into low Earth orbit. After the first satellites were launched in 1957 and 1958, the US worked on Project Mercury to launch men singly into orbit, while the USSR secretly pursued the Vostok program to accomplish the same thing. The USSR launched the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, into a single orbit in Vostok 1 on a Vostok 3KA rocket, on 12 April 1961. The US launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7

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