Usually, when one thinks about government sponsored programs one thinks of bureaucratic red tape that defies common sense and ridiculous delays and grossly inflated expenses. NASA is changing all of those misconceptions. This past Friday it announced that things are moving right along at the space agency. It has declared mission orders for SpaceX, a private company in California, to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Back in May, The Boeing Company got the same orders.
These are “first time ever” missions. One aspect of “first time ever” is that a commercial agency, rather than NASA, will provide the space vehicle and rocket. Although NASA will supply the astronauts, private companies are furnishing the hardware to get them to the ISS. Although exact dates haven’t been nailed down and we don’t yet know who gets to be the first company to make space history, we do know that this historical event will take place in 2017. You see, once a mission has been contracted, it takes about two or three years to complete the construction and certification process of these spaceships.
Boeing’s spaceship is the CST-100 Starliner. The SpaceX spacecraft is the Crew Dragon. Their capabilities will make a big difference in research capabilities aboard the ISS, which is actually an orbiting laboratory even though it is commonly called a “station”, like it was something akin to a train depot. The gringa thinks, “As if!”
How else does NASA and the nation and the world benefit from this collaboration with commercial industry getting involved in missions typically considered to be a “government only” controlled program? Well, for one thing, much like commercial airline competition helps keep prices lower for the traveler, the cost per seat for each astronaut is lower. I mean, we all know that private companies are interested in profit whereas a government agency, um, not so much. This means that in the production of the spacecraft and its operational expenses, the company attempts to keep operating costs down in order to maximize profit. They are incentivized to operate like that whereas a government agency, um, not so much. So, in other words, by contracting with SpaceX and Boeing to use their spaceships, NASA is saving the taxpayers some money. The gringa says, “YAY!”
You see, since the scuttle of the shuttle NASA has been having to pay fees to Rocosmos to tote our astronauts to the ISS. So, we’ll also be saving cab fare. And one other important thing to consider. NASA always depends on funding from the U.S. government which in turn determines their budget. If we stop and think that this agency has had its funding on the chopping block during hard economic times, it is only natural for NASA to think outside the box (which is what they do best) and come up with solutions for shortfalls.
Each contract between NASA and these two commercial companies allows for at least two and up to six missions. A mission will involve transporting up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members along with cargo, about 220 pounds of it. While the crew serves its 210 day mission, the spaceship remains at the station as an “emergency lifeboat” should there be an ISS disaster. By using the Boeing and SpaceX spacecrafts, NASA is able to send more personnel which translates to more manpower for research and scientific work. That means the world will benefit from their results sooner as well as the input of more creative minds that opens up the possibility of more innovative ideas.
This change of increasing personnel and speeding up the timeline of research and development on board the ISS creates another great possibility. The possibility of constructing other orbiting platforms that will support research and develop in the private sector. Commercial capabilities, the space economy, is exactly where NASA is leading the world. And, the gringa is on board!
Photo credit: ja.wikipedia.org