Private Firms Are the Future of Space

In the early 1970s, Freeman Dyson wrote an essay comparing space travel to the colonization of the New World and the settlement of the American West. The subject was fanciful, but that didn't keep Dyson, an eminent physicist and writer for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, from making a meticulous effort to quantify and compare the costs of these vastly different ventures. From letters of Gov. William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, Dyson calculated that the Mayflower's voyage in 1620 from England to Massachusetts cost the average family about 7.5 years in wages. The westward trek of the Mormons in the 1840s cost each family about 2.5 years, according to records left behind by Brigham Young, the Mormon leader. Even a modest space voyage, Dyson calculated, would set the average family back 1,500 years in wages. The difference reflected the relative difficulty of space travel, but also the limitations of big government programs to do things on the cheap.

Nothing has happened in the past 40 years to suggest that NASA has come any closer to the commercial sweet spot of the Colonial settlers. The International Space Station, for instance, built and maintained at a cost that by some estimates approaches $100 billion, houses six astronauts. The commission headed by Lockheed Martin chairman Norm Augustine that has spent much of the past year deliberating on NASA's human spaceflight program has found that the agency's $18 billion annual budget isn't enough to meet its goal of returning to the moon by 2020, or to keep the ISS aloft beyond 2015, even though ending this program would send NASA's international partners into apoplexy. More embarrassing, with NASA's space shuttle due to be mothballed in 2010, and its cheaper replacement, the Orion capsule, not due to fly until 2012, the partners face a two year gap in which they will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz ships to commute to the space station. What NASA needs most is money, lots of it.

The shortfall may force NASA to open up its space-exploration program to commercial operators to a degree that's unprecedented in its history. The move could create opportunities for the modern equivalents of Young and Bradford—entrepreneurs willing to risk their livelihoods on making the exploration of space affordable by not only designing and building ships for NASA, but also by providing shuttle services to deliver NASA astronauts or equipment to their targets. In the past, NASA has been deeply involved in managing design and development work by outside contractors, a messy process that made the shuttle expensive and unsafe, rather than cheap and safe. Now the agency is under pressure to step back and buy services wholesale from private firms. Instead of established pillars of the military-industrial complex like Lockheed, NASA could find itself in business with flashy entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic space-tourism outfit plans to offer two-and-a-half-hour flights into low Earth orbit, perhaps as soon as early 2011, for a starting price of only $200,000 per astronaut. It might one day also be ferrying astronauts and cosmonauts to the space station. "We're talking about a movement from where the government has been the prime contractor, managing situations with a very hands-on role, to a situation where they are just a customer," says Larry Williams, vice president of strategic relations for SpaceX, the space firm started by PayPal founder Elon Musk. "It would sort of be the role FedEx plays with the U.S. Postal Service, which many people don't know is their biggest customer. Because FedEx is so efficient at moving packages, the Postal Service realizes it can just pay FedEx to move packages between cities." That model, says Williams, is what NASA is looking toward and what it is already starting to do with smaller companies like SpaceX.

The first assignment is cargo. NASA designed the Orion capsule only for astronauts, leaving the private sector, with seed money, to devise a way to get supplies to the station. Last year it awarded two contracts: $1.6 billion to SpaceX for 12 launches, and $1.9 billion to Orbital Sciences Corp. for eight trips. To fulfill the contract, SpaceX is now building the Falcon 9 booster, which will carry an unmanned capsule that can dock with the ISS. Astronauts will offload cargo and send the capsule back down. Orbital expects to have a similar vehicle, Taurus II, ready to go in 2011. "At the end of the day, from NASA's perspective, they don't care how you get the mail there," says Williams. "They just want it delivered."

The next step is to work out similar deals with private firms to send astronauts aloft. To do that, NASA will have to relinquish some of its oversight of crew safety. This isn't entirely without precedent: NASA already relies on Russia to bring some astronauts to and from the ISS on its Soyuz spacecraft. But NASA has never entrusted a private firm to carry a crew. To make its human spaceflight program work, it will have to start.

The potential cost savings is enormous. SpaceX claims it could adapt its cargo-carrying spaceship for ferrying a human crew in less than three years, once it gets the green light. It expects to offer a round-trip ticket for about $20 million per astronaut—less than half what Russia charges.

Virgin Galactic makes even bigger promises. Its tourist service will use a ship designed by Burt Rutan, who in 2004 won the $10 million X Prize for being the first private rocket builder to send a person out of the atmosphere. Rutan's design for Virgin has already made 16 test flights. A futuristic plane called the WhiteKnightTwo flies up to 15 kilometers, where the small SpaceShipOne continues on for another 95 kilometers into space. Because the ship is made of carbon composite materials and uses a novel hybrid rocket motor that burns both nitrous oxide and rubber, Virgin thinks it will be able to keep costs low and the environmental impact to a minimum. In addition to the tourism enterprise, it plans to start a commercial service in 2014 to launch small satellites for less than $3 million each—one 10th what it costs now. The service could be adapted to take crew members to the ISS, says president Will Whitehorn. A journey of six astronauts would cost less than $1.5 million.

If Virgin and other commercial firms can deliver, Earth orbit will be far more accessible than it's ever been before. Although it would still be a stretch for all but the wealthiest people, costs could come down low enough to jump-start markets for tourism. Bigelow Aerospace, funded by real-estate mogul Robert Bigelow, is already designing orbital hotels; all the firm needs is a cheap way of getting to orbit and back. The big sticking point, however, will be safety. Even though NASA holds the safety of its crew paramount, it still hasn't been able to escape the occasional disaster, like the loss of the Columbia shuttle and its crew in 2003. Commercial firms will have to meet or exceed NASA's safety ratings by learning from its mistakes—the space shuttle is unreliable, in part, because its all-purpose design is overly complex. Private firms will have to use simple technologies designed for specific purposes. How well they can do so safely will become apparent over the next few years.

A bigger question is what role private firms will play in going to the moon and beyond. So far, NASA has focused on the possibility of using private services to get astronauts to low Earth orbit, where the ISS and many satellites currently fly. To go to the moon and, eventually, Mars, NASA needs a bigger rocket capable of sending a crew, with equipment and supplies for a long-duration trip, beyond the tether of Earth's gravity. It might be able to entice commercial firms to undertake their own big rockets if there were some payoff down the road. There may be commercial opportunities on the moon; China, for instance, is interested in deposits of helium-3, a substance that could be used for nuclear fusion reactors back on Earth. Many seemingly ridiculous ideas for generating energy and beaming it back to Earth now seem much less so, thanks to the climate crisis.

Still, the challenge of sending people safely into deep space and back for a profit is big enough to give any entrepreneur pause. "Eventually, I believe the private sector will have a role in deep space," says Virgin Galactic's Whitehorn. "But NASA will have to lead the way. The Industrial Revolution didn't take off until the railways arrived. With space travel it's like we're still using steamships and canals because NASA's technology has not developed." Indeed, NASA's Ares V rocket, at the moment little more than a design on paper, is strikingly similar to the Saturn V, which carried the Apollo astronauts. Can NASA afford even that? Or will it have to outsource? NASA hasn't yet awarded any construction contracts. No private firms have come forward with a better design. Not even one small step.