Entrepreneurs in space
- June 4, 2010 4:01 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.
The successful launch of a privately owned rocket, Falcon 9, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this week, marks the beginning of a handover of space flight from government hands to the private sector. As NASA retires the space shuttles, it is getting out of the business of launching people into space, in the hope that costs will come down when the operation is done as a commercial enterprise.
Space X, the company that owns Falcon 9, says the cost of a launch will range from $45 million to $52 million, which sounds like a lot of money - but it is 20 times cheaper than a flight on the space shuttle. All they have to do is prove that their rocket is reliable. That will take more than one test flight, but if successful, both cargo and astronauts will be lofted up to the International Space Station on commercial vehicles. It's the space version of 19th century privateers who owned their own sailing ships and would haul anything for anyone, for a fair price.
Other corporations are watching carefully, including the giants, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who already build large rockets that carry satellites to orbit. It wouldn't take much to mount the four-passenger Orion capsule on top of their big boosters and provide the same service. In fact, it makes you wonder why this hasn't happened sooner.
The other person who has a lot riding on this venture is U.S. President Barack Obama, who is responsible for changing the direction of NASA, from a space trucking service back to its roots as a research organization, pushing the boundaries of the space frontier. It sounds like a bold move but there are many in the space industry, who have been getting rich on the over-inflated costs of the shuttle and station programs, and who disagree with this new direction. But NASA's own next generation rocket, Ares 1, which was built from shuttle components, was already over $1 billion, and they only had one flight, which didn't even reach orbit. That's why Obama is handing it over to the private sector.
It makes sense. When you are offering a business in a competitive market and hope to make a profit, there is little room for waste. Government or military contracts, on the other hand, have a long tradition of excessive waste, which is why space flight has been so outrageously expensive. Now, the free market is taking over, which should make it cheaper for everyone.
It's about time space flight made the same transition that took place on the high seas and in the skies, where battle ships became ocean liners and bombers became airliners. Today, most people don't really care whether the plane they step onto is a Boeing, an Airbus or Bombardier, but that commercial competition has kept the cost of flying low and increased the reliability of the aircraft. Hopefully, commercialization of space will bring the cost of rocket technology down to reasonable levels, improve reliability, so they will avoid the unhealthy habit of occasionally blowing up and make space available to anyone willing to pay for it.
It all sounds like a good business plan; let's see how far it can really take us.
(And if you want to hear a lively discussion about the privatization of space flight, check out this Quirks & Quarks feature.)
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