The International Space Station’s Desperate Careen Toward Privatization

Soyuz TMA-18 launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in April, 2010. Public domain NASA image.

As you probably know, the US Space Shuttle program will call it quits next summer with STS-135, planned for June, 2011. However, the US space program isn’t calling it quits at that time; NASA plans to continue sending astronauts and materiel to the International Space Station using commercial carriers. The ISS is expected to remain in operation until at least 2015 and probably 2020; NASA plans to save US taxpayers about a gajillion dollars using private contractors, which is roughly the amount Dick Cheney planned to save by using Blackwater to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wait, did I say that out loud? Sorry, sorry, let me take off my snarky left wing fart-sniffer acey-deucey off and don my credulous space-nerd propeller beanie that celebrates all things post-terrestrial.

There; that’s so much better. What I meant to say, of course, is that NASA is privatizing its journeys to the ISS because that’s the best way to encourage scientific and engineering innovation.

The problem? Those commercial carriers don’t exist yet. Until they do, NASA’s going to have to keep sending Americans skyward on Russian Soyuz rockets. That costs tens of millions of dollars per person. Today’s AP article on this matter quotes Sierra Nevada Corporation‘s Mark Sirangelo as saying, “The Russian price goes up every year, and they have a monopoly.” Sierra Nevada, through its wholly-owned subsidiary SpaceDev, is developing DreamChaser, a mini-shuttle planned to carry six to eight people to low Earth orbit. The DreamChaser is built on a shuttle model, launching vertically but landing on a runway.

The same article quotes Space Explorations Technologies Corporation founder and CEO Elon Musk as saying “We’re at the point now where it’s either commercial human spaceflight or no human spaceflight in the U.S.” His company, also known as SpaceX and based in California, is vying for contracts to deliver to the ISS. SpaceX’s vehicle is the Dragon, which is built on a ballistic capsule model. According to Musk, the Dragon’s heat shield is designed to survive reentry from the velocities required to return not just from Earth orbit, but from from the Moon or from Mars. Check out this artist’s rendition of the Dragon docking with the ISS:

The SpaceX Dragon docking with the ISS. Public domain NASA artist's rendition.

Another AP article points me toward a number of other companies developing private spaceflight options.

A few of the most interesting ones:

Blue Origin, the brainchild of founder Jeff Bezos, which has test-fired its New Shepherd orbital vehicle.

Genesis II artist's rendition courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace and Wikipedia.

Bigelow Aerospace, which teamed up with Boeing to develop the Genesis I and Genesis II (inflatable [!!!!!!!!!] space structures) and is developing the Sundancer (which will carry people). Bigelow ran a Fly Your Stuff program, in which your average Jennifer and/or Jason could launch photos and the like into space for $300 and up, just for the heck of it. They’re also developing the CST-100 crew capsule.

Orbital Sciences Corporation, which already has a $1.9 billion contract for ISS resupply.

So don’t cry yet, Buck Rogers; your space station may still be resupplied by American know-how.

But the thing that has American analysts worried, a bit, to hear this AP article tell it, is that the Obama Administration’s budget hit team wants to cut $1.3 billion in federal funding to these private companies. Says the AP (via the Las Vegas Sun):

[The] fact that commercial spaceflight was targeted, underscores the vulnerability and controversy of the Obama administration’s plan to get American astronauts to the International Space Station via commercial craft once the space shuttles stop flying next year.

Given the federal government’s mad dash toward privatization on every level, and its so-far (to my mind) pretty disastrous results, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t actually the potential for a cheaper and more aggressive long-term funding option by revitalizing NASA. But what do I know? I just like to look at pretty pictures of spaceships. Buck Rogers out.

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One comment on “The International Space Station’s Desperate Careen Toward Privatization
  1. Don’t forget that Elon Musk is the same dude who cashed in by co-founding PayPal – and then there’s the bizarre, bizarre tale of Tesla, a car whose batteries are so fucking heavy they keep the vehicle firmly weighted in the sphere of “rich dude’s wet dream concept car.”

    Let’s just hope we don’t need batteries to go to Mars. Or that NASA is good at looking for hidden transaction fees.

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