With tensions between Russia and the West remaining high, NASA is moving ahead with plans to find a homegrown method for delivering astronauts to Earth orbit. The agency's own Orion capsule, designed to transport crews to asteroids, the Moon, and beyond is still years from completion, so in the interim it will be up to commercial enterprises to be our taxis. A field that barely existed ten years ago is now burgeoning and this week NASA declared Boeing and SpaceX the early winners.
To be clear, the announcement of new contracts totaling about $6.8 billion are for crew transport. NASA's existing contracts for cargo with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will remain intact as both companies' systems continue to perform admirably. With this decision, NASA is committing up to $4.2 billion to Boeing's CST-100 capsule and $2.6 billion to SpaceX's Dragon. Each agreement includes at least one crewed test flight to the International Space Station, with the option for up to six additional flights if things check out. Flights could begin as early as 2017.
Importantly, these are not exclusive contracts. This means that both Boeing and SpaceX are free to sell rides to space to any interested party (well, almost any...). Just like with most other products and services, volume equals efficiency, and NASA knows that every private spaceflight conducted lowers costs for everyone.
While NASA works to diversify our launch options to low-Earth orbit, there remains more or less only one choice for sending spacecraft beyond Earth: the Atlas V rocket. This launch vehicle is built by the United Launch Alliance, a corporate partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The problem is, a key component of the Atlas V, its RD-180 engine, is built solely by a Russian company. Since the Atlas V is also used to launch military and reconnaissance satellites, recent events have revealed this dependency as a strategic weakness for the United States. So it made sense this week when ULA announced that they planned to begin a program aimed at sourcing this part domestically. What was perhaps a bit more surprising was with whom they contracted: Blue Origin. Never heard of them? You wouldn't be alone - Blue Origin has never flown a rocket to space. In fact, the company is probably most famous for its founder: Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
In addition to these improvements to the Atlas V, American launch capabilities could be soon bolstered if the Air Force approves SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket for use with military payloads. Right now, this vehicle is used solely for civilian purposes: launching commercial satellites and delivering cargo to the ISS. As SpaceX's crew-delivery programs advances in the next few years, the Falcon 9 will need to become rated safe enough for human flight. When this happens, it will be difficult for the Air Force to deny the company much longer.
Whether it's for commercial, explorative, or military purposes, competition in the space of launch vehicles and spacecraft is a great thing for all involved. As long as a focus on safety remains front-and-center, competition is sure to have many positive outcomes in cost, flexibility, and capability.