NASA's SpaceX, Boeing deal a giant leap for space flight

It’s about time governments get out of the business of building spacecraft that only go to low Earth orbit and hand that off to the private sector, writes Bob McDonald

It’s about time governments turned to the private sector to build spacecraft, writes Bob McDonald

SpaceX, which makes the Dragon spacecraft (pictured), and Boeing, maker of the CST-100 capsule, have been contracted by NASA to take astronauts to the International Space Station. (NASA/CBC)

The handover from expensive government space flight to commercial travel was completed this week, as NASA awarded two contracts to companies that will supply transportation to the International Space Station. Will this make space travel akin to cheap airline travel?

Spaceflight has traditionally been ridiculously expensive.  Each mission to the moon cost billions, and even the space shuttles — which were touted as low-cost, reusable vehicles — were costing about $1.5 billion for every launch during their final years. That’s because these were enormous, pioneering projects, involving thousands of people spread all over the continent and huge government bureaucracies.

Now, after 50 years of spaceflight experience, individual corporations can do it for 10 times less money on their own.

Boeing's CST-100 capsules will fly aboard Atlas 5 rockets, which are manufactured and flown by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing. (Boeing/YouTube)

And, the fact that NASA awarded the contract to two companies rather than one prime contractor means there will be competition, which should keep those costs down. Already, Space-X, the smaller start-up company, says it can offer flights at 40 per cent lower cost than Boeing. 

The heat is on for both companies to deliver on their promises.

The idea of selling space in space is not new. The Russians have been doing it for decades. In the 1990s, before the International Space Station was built, the U.S. paid Russia $325 million to allow space shuttles to dock with their MIR Space Station, and for American astronauts to live on board for long periods, as they had little experience of living in space.

Later, the Russians offered empty seats on their Soyuz capsules to tourists who paid $20- to $30-million each for a week on the Space Station.

And finally, since the space shuttles retired, NASA has been paying $70 million each for the same seats, as their only way to get their astronauts — including our own Chris Hadfield — up to the orbiting outpost. That commercial approach has kept the Russian space program alive since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when government funding all but vanished.

Commercial vehicles

The new arrangement, where NASA essentially becomes a paying customer for rides on commercial vehicles, is similar to the handover from government to the private sector that took place after World War Two. 

SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which has been carrying cargo to International Space Station, has been adapted for human flight. (SpaxeX)

Governments had been paying huge sums to military contractors to develop fighters and large bombers, but when the war ended, the companies used the same technology to build airliners and sell them worldwide. This made flying cheaper and more available to anyone who could afford a ticket. And since then, the cost of a ticket, when compared to income, has dropped dramatically.

Likewise, we are entering a new era of space flight that is no longer in the realm of highly trained and specialized astronauts, who train for years for the opportunity of one or two flights.

Boeing, Space-X and the other companies that were bidding on the NASA contract also have their eyes on the tourism market. Bigelow Aerospace is designing an inflatable space hotel that can hold six people from 10 to 60 days. It has already launched two successful prototypes as proof of concept and will soon send an inflatable module to the Space Station, to show that people can actually live inside.

The interior of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft features LED lighting and space for up to 7 astronauts. (Robert Markowitz/NASA/Reuters)

The Russians, not to miss a commercial opportunity, unveiled their own version a few years ago. And other countries have similar dreams. These are not flights of fancy; they are business operations with viable markets, overheads, operating costs and, hopefully, profits that will only succeed if they meet the bottom line.

It’s about time governments get out of the business of building spacecraft that only go to low Earth orbit. Now that they’ve handed that off to the private sector, they can focus on researching the next big step beyond the Earth. 

And you can be sure that once that leap has been made to deep space, the corporations will be soon to follow.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.