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Cost in Space

Sept. 8, 2011
NASA is encouraging U.S. companies to create vessels capable of transporting cargo on the 'final frontier.'

Commercial transportation dates back at least several millennia, from the earliest waterborne vessels and rudimentary livestock-pulled wagons. Certainly by the time of Christopher Columbus, the human race had developed vehicles capable of reliably carrying cargo across continents and even hemispheres. While technology has made it possible to deliver larger amounts of goods farther and faster than anybody could have dreamed, all commercial transportation since time immemorial has been limited to terrestrial boundaries. That situation is about to change.

Echoing the famous "Star Trek" idea of space being "the final frontier," NASA has decided to open up the transportation of freight, supplies and even people headed to the International Space Station (ISS) to commercial ventures. Now that NASA has retired its fleet of space shuttles, the space agency intends "to get out of the business of owning and operating low-Earth orbit transportation systems and hand that off to the private sector," according to Charles Bolden, NASA administrator. Bolden emphasizes that it should be U.S. companies and U.S.-built spacecraft that transport U.S. astronauts to the ISS, and not foreign governments.

Dragon spacecraft in cargo configuration. Photo: Spacex

One of those companies will be Space Exploration Technology Corp., or SpaceX, which plans to send one of its Falcon 9 rockets up to dock with the ISS later this year. SpaceX already has a modest track record of success, as in 2010 it was the first private company to successfully launch and recover a space capsule from orbit. "Successfully" is the key word, as a Russian cargo spacecraft crashed to Earth last month, failing to deliver its payload of supplies to the ISS.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden believes that "now is the time to cut the cost of transportation to low-Earth orbit," while helping the U.S. aerospace industry "become a job-creating engine for decades to come."
According to Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, the price of a standard flight on a Falcon 9 rocket is $54 million, and the average price of a cargo mission on a Dragon spacecraft to the ISS is $133 million. Dragon, which is being developed in partnership with NASA as part of the Commercial Orbit Transportation Services (COTS) program, is a reusable spacecraft capable of transporting cargo and crews to the ISS. The thinking on NASA's part is that by encouraging and co-sponsoring U.S. companies to develop the next generation of spacecraft, the ongoing transportation costs to the ISS and other missions will shrink significantly.

Referring to last year's demonstration flight, Musk points out, "the [Dragon] spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket that carried it were designed, manufactured and launched by American workers for an American company." He adds that 2010 marked the first time in more than three decades that U.S. companies began winning back global market share in commercial satellite launches.

Another U.S. company, Orbital Sciences Corp., is working on a pressurized cargo module (PCM) of its own with NASA under the COTS program. Orbital Science's Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft is scheduled for a demonstration flight to the ISS in early 2012. However, while Orbital Science is a U.S.-based company, the PCM was manufactured and tested in Italy.

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