This column has never been political, and it still isn’t. Republicans and Democrats alike agree, the commercialization of human Spaceflight makes sense. How did this bi-partisan support within the space program occur? In the case of the Shuttle replacement project sending Americans to orbit on American made spacecraft, it started under President George Bush, and has been continued under President Obama. Congress agreed, it is best for the government to buy rides on private launch vehicles and use privately manufactured capsules or spacecraft to send Americans to orbit to do government work.
My last article covered the recently successful Mars Science Laboratory Mission (MSL) and the landing of the Curiosity Rover. That story was such an affirmation of determination I could not resist putting it in perspective relative to Olympian achievements. Yet, there was another story that occurred 2 days prior to the MSL success. It was the selection by NASA of the 3 companies who will compete to carry US astronauts to and return astronauts from the International Space Station under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCAP) Program. Boeing Space Exploration, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada Corporation were the funded winners, receiving $460 million, $440 million and $212.5 million respectively.
Ok, I realize I just hit my limit on acronyms. CCiCAP is a 21 month long program that will require the selected companies to design their launch vehicles, and spacecraft for humans and integrate both into a system. The STS or Shuttle Transportation System was made up of the launch vehicle and the orbiter. The launch vehicle’s job is to get the Orbiter or spacecraft going fast and high enough to reach orbital speed.
Picture the ball in a game of Roulette. If the Roulette table were in space in the absence of the earth’s gravity, and the croupier spun the ball onto the table, the forward momentum of the ball would propel it around the table until friction with the table made it stop and drop into a numbered slot. Granted the table would be made to keep the ball confined, but this would be one long game of Roulette waiting for the ball to stop. The croupier is the one who applied the initial force to put the ball in motion. That’s what the launch vehicle does. It puts the spacecraft in motion. Once the Orbiter or spacecraft reaches a pre-determined velocity, the launch vehicle drops back to earth, while the Orbiter’s momentum carries it to its orbital destination.
When Congress told NASA to start developing a Shuttle replacement they determined it was best to have private industry invest along with the government and build the vehicles to bring cargo and humans to space. This would help stimulate private commercial space transportation.
The partnership these companies have with the government is simple. NASA only pays them when they achieve the milestones they set for themselves. If they develop capability that NASA does not need or require, the company pays for that development on its own. One more refresher bit of data, NASA spent an average of $1.6 billion dollars every time it launched the Shuttle. This recent award to three companies totals just over $1.1billion. While Congress was a bit stubborn at times, the program has been successful. Boeing’s space capsule the Commercial Space Transportation dubbed CST 100 has 24 small engines. They were recently tested at White Sands. These programs have created jobs, and savings to our space program.
Remember your Dish TV is satellite TV, your GPS devices and Satellite Radio are all satellite based services for consumers. No launch vehicles, no services. Congress is supporting the concept that it will buy launch services just like Direct TV buys launch services. Direct TV does not own and operate the launch vehicles; they just buy a ride when they need it. That’s where this recent announcement is headed. NASA is helping the 3 companies develop launch vehicles and spacecraft so we can send and return our astronauts to space.
The difficult process of weaning NASA out of the business of owning and operating vehicles that take cargo and humans to space has been hard. The government is like a parent in the space industry, they are letting go but its hard. The three companies who have been chosen are American companies, and they employ thousands of Americans. And as in New Mexico, both Republicans and Democrats can take their fair share of credit for these successful programs.