The History (and Future) of Commercial Space FlightS

Right now, the final frontier of space is only open to a select few. But in the coming decades, you won't need to be a supersoldier to go into orbit. You'll just need your wallet.

On the 1st of February, 2003, America's first operational space shuttle, the Columbia, broke up over the skies of Texas, leading to the deaths of the seven crew members on board. An analysis of the crash in the weeks afterward revealed that damage caused by a foam strike on the orbiter's wing allowed plasma into the internal structure of the shuttle, reducing its integrity and leading to disaster.

This disaster, much like the 1986 one that destroyed Space Shuttle Challenger during lift-off, has fueled debate as to the viability of crewed spaceflight, a debate that is sure to continue. It also revealed a number of problems within the space program, namely that the shuttle fleet is overworked and outdated. Using shuttles continuously as one of the only ways into orbit in the US can be detrimental - and that's why we're seeing so many people seeking out spaceflight alternatives in the private sector.

Currently, almost all of the United State's space flight activities are projects headed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and in their relatively short history, they have undertaken a number of incredible feats - sending people to space, landing on the moon six times, maintaining two space stations and launching satellites that have increased our knowledge of our surroundings in the galaxy. However, NASA is largely unequipped to handle the growing demand for commercial space endeavors such as satellite launches and tourism because they've focused mainly on scientific and exploration missions.

NASA's original charter, The National Aeronautics and Space Act, established NASA in 1958, just as space flight was beginning with the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1. In a move to catch up with the Russians and close the perceived gap in technology and security, NASA's mission was laid out in the first sections of the bill:

Sec. 102. (d) The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:

(1) The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment; and
(9) The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.

The History (and Future) of Commercial Space FlightS

While NASA's charter does indicate that it should encourage commercial enterprises, the focus of the agency has largely been one of exploration. Crewed missions to space brought back a wealth of knowledge flight after flight, while missions to the moon helped to piece together some of the secrets of the solar system's origins, while even today, robotic missions to the outer planets have reported back the existence of water on Mars, and the mineral compositions of our nearest neighbors.

In the 1970s was a shift in focus from the lunar landings that heralded the birth of NASA. David Hitt, in his book Homesteading Space, notes:

Developed in the shadow of the Apollo moon missions and using hardware originally created for Apollo, the Skylab space station took the nation's astronauts from being space explorers to being space residents.

Where the Lunar landings were somewhere between politics and genuine scientific exploration, Skylab was the turning point, when it was launched in 1973. The idea of living in space would continue through the six-year lifespan of the Skylab space station to the birth of the Space Shuttle to today's International Space Station.

Trying to maintain the pace of its missions, NASA had to strain its resources to undertake commercial endeavors. From early on, private companies such as AT&T have used NASA to launch their own commercial satellites, and that is a policy that has continued through to today. While the US Military also launches a bulk of commercial satellites, there are other problems with the agency as well. As NASA's budget gets further cut down as the economy worsens, job cuts have begun to force people away from the agency, including some higher level members, such as Martin Kress, who left his position at NASA as Deputy Director of the Glenn Research Center for National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In his statement that was released by NASA, he noted that "The world is changing rapidly, and I see an opportunity for doing some very innovative things at the National Space Science and Technology Center" (Source)Innovation here is a key element, and is something that is difficult within such a large bureaucratic structure such as NASA. Private companies have already proven that they can accomplish much the same tasks as NASA, but at a much lower cost.

Even as the military also launches satellites, the demand has placed a burden on the launch capabilities of NASA. According to Science Fiction author Allen M. Steele, in his testimony to the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in 2001, commercial enterprise had led to the Challenger disaster:

As stated before, NASA is ill-suited for dealing with commercial space enterprise. This was demonstrated during the early 1980s, when the demands of the satellite launch industry contributed in part ot the circumstances which led to the Challenger disaster; the Reagan administration responded by barring Commercial payloads from the space shuttle fleet. More recently, we've also seen the indecision over the purpose of the International Space Station; no one could decide whether the ISS should be a government R&D lab, a commercial space outpost, or neither or both. As a result, the ISS has been redesigned several times, causing enormous construction overruns.

In his testimony, Steele argues that the creation of a federal agency devoted to private space enterprise is needed. While NASA maintains a busy schedule of scientific missions and its own launch capabilities, this agency would encourage private space flight interests. This has yet to happen, but there has been considerable development in private space flight, most obviously with SpaceShipOne's dramatic capture of the Ansari X-Price in October of 2004.

There are many commercial alternatives to NASA which are in their early stages. These companies, and the ones that are likely to follow, will be essential in easing the burden that has been placed upon NASA's aging space fleet. They will likely do this by taking control of the more routine tasks in space: Delivering crews to their destinations, bringing up consumables and equipment to those crews, and servicing satellites in orbit. In this scenario, we would likely see NASA's duties shift to what they have traditionally been: science and exploration, rather than an all-encompassing service for ferrying everything into space.

The History (and Future) of Commercial Space FlightS

We can see the shift towards commercialization already with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which is considered the first spaceliner. In the four years since Virgin Galactic tickets went on sale to the general public, over two hundred have been sold, at over $100,000 each. The price is likely to drop after that, but this highlights the demand for a space tourism industry. Branson's company has the right idea, and has signed contracts with Spaceport America, the first commercial spacesport, which is currently under construction. It was recently announced that a sister spaceport, Spaceport Sweden, would also sign contracts with Branson's Virgin Galactic.

The demand for commercial spaceflight exists beyond tourism of course. Another privately owned company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X), made history last year when it launched the first commercial rocket into orbit, the Falcon 1. Founded by Elon Musk, the creator of PayPal, the company has been working to create a low-cost alternative to deliver payloads to space.

According to Musk:

Satellites and spacecraft urgently need a more reliable and cost effective launch vehicle than the options available today. SpaceX is confident that our Falcon rocket will achieve that end in the near future. In only nine months we've designed, built and initiated testing of our rocket's main engine, which is a testament to the capability and determination of the SpaceX team to deliver on promised goals in record time.

After several failed launches, the first successful Space X flight was in September of 2008, with another launch scheduled for 2009. In addition to these unmanned rockets, the company has announced the plans for the Dragon, a crewed module. Additionally, NASA announced in 2006 that it was awarding a contract with the company to provide resupply missions for the International Space Station. According to the company's website, there are already twenty-five planned missions on both the Falcon and Dragon vehicles, performing duties for both public and private interests.

With the grounding of the space shuttle fleet projected for 2010, the United States will need to rely on foreign powers such as Russia or the European Space Agency to resupply the International Space Station, a costly affair that will likely draw criticism from taxpayers. Companies such as Virgin Galactic and Space X both fill a growing need for alternative launch capabilities, and will likely be at the forefront of future space exploration. After all, there are entire worlds to be explored, and numerous commercial possibilities.

In the meantime, there is certainly evidence of what haste does to a program such as NASA, when safety is inadvertently compromised in order to meet a packed schedule. NASA is essentially the sole means to get cargo into orbit, but it cannot remain so. Explorers and entrepreneurs will seek out alternative means of sending equipment and humans into space, and shifting this burden to the commercial sector makes sense. This is especially true because private companies can fund their own hardware - this takes the burden off the taxpayers, who only really see the failures of the space program, and not its enormous benefits. Eventually, the private sector will reveal the true benefits of space travel, which isn't just economic, as satellites such as Hubble continually show us.