Recast of the historic flight
Today SpaceX has successfully launched the production version of their crewDragon vehicle to the International Space Station. This uncrewed test will shake out the vehicle and witness how it behaves during all phases of the flight, before a first manned flight later this year.
The SpaceX vehicle will arrive at the ISS in about a day, stay docked for a week and return to Earth. Boeing, who is building the CST-100 Starliner capsule, will perform similar tests later this year. Both companies received money under the CCDev program (Commercial Crew Development Program) with Boeing receiving a total of USD 4.8 Billion and SpaceX USD 3.1 Billion.
Below a capture of the Post Launch Press conference on the successful launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon 2 Demo Mission 1. We see SpaceX being celebrated by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein and CEO Elon Musk admitting he is stunned that in the 17 years of running SpaceX they achieved more than he ever hoped for.
To be on the safe side in case of delay with either Boeing or SpaceX, NASA is considering buying extra seats on the Russian Soyuz one last time.
What it means for spaceflight
While the anticipation grows about America reinstating a capability that was lost with the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, several things are becoming clear. The most prominent one: We now have more capability to send astronauts to space than ever before.
In 2020 the USA and by extension the international community will have three crew vehicles at their disposal for missions to the ISS and by 2022-2023 one capable of flights to deep space: the ISS will be serviced by the Boeing CST-100, the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Russian Soyouz.
The Orion vehicle, destined for Deep Space missions, is not supposed to be used for flights to the ISS but will be available for crewed flights to the lunar Gateway station in the vicinity of the Moon starting in 2021-2023. If absolutely necessary the more capable and expensive Orion (due to its launch vehicle being the very powerful Space Launch System (SLS) which is an actual Moon rocket) can also deliver and return up to seven crew to the ISS.
India is planning to follow suit by developing its own crew capsule which they hope will come into service in the 2022-2024 timeframe.
We must also not forget the Chinese Shenzhou, which might in the future also perform missions to the ISS. However, for now, this is not possible. Since 2011 the ability to create bilateral agreements and coordination between the US and China space agencies have been blocked by the unilateral US Public Law 112-55, SEC. 539 aka the Frank Wolf law.
Currently, the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA) is planning to construct a separate small space station at 1/5th the weight of the ISS, with the first module launching in 2020, and which looks similar to the Russian Mir station that was deorbited in 2001. They already signed bilateral agreements with the Italian Space Agency (ASI) for cooperation.
Once the Frank Wolf prohibition is lifted -and many advocates in the academic and industrial world are calling for this to happen-, we could see US crew docking to the Chinese space station and vice versa, giving rise to further activities and cooperation in space.
Orbital Space Tourism
Just as the Space Shuttle did, the CST-100, and Crew Dragon can each bring 7 crew to the ISS (The Shuttle could launch 8 but most often lifted off with 7 crew). Not all of these seats need to be filled with professional astronauts from the ISS partner space agencies.
A figure that floats around that NASA will pay per passenger on Crew Dragon is about USD 58 million per seat with the exact same price for the Boeing CST-100. While this is not exactly cheap and out of range for most mortals, it does represent more than a 20 million per seat reduction compared to the 82 million per seat that NASA had was charged. Finally, compare this again to the USD 20 million that Dennis Tito paid when he became the first space tourist to the ISS, also using the spare seat on a Soyuz Flight TM-32 (ISS EP-1) on April 28, 2001, and remaining in orbit for 7 days before returning on Soyuz TM-31.
Budding astronauts with smaller budgets, although still deep-pocketed, can buy a ticket from Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic. Their suborbital airplane-like vehicle VSS Unity (Virgin Space Ship) will take you to above 80 km on a hair raising ballistic flight. With 700 tickets sold at about USD 200.000 to 350.000 the interest in commercial spaceflight is turning out to be quite real and substantial. Branson’s company is not alone.
Jeff Bezos from Blue Origin will allow tourists to enjoy a similar flight profile on his suborbital rocket New Shepard. Both Branson and Bezos will see crewed test flights for their vehicles in 2019. Blue Origin should start to sell tickets in 2019. Tourists will experience microgravity for several minutes per flight on both vehicles while enjoying the blackness of space and the superb 360° view of almost the entire continent and both oceans.
Which one do you think is cooler? VSS Unity airplanes that fly into space and land on a runway; or the suborbital New Sheppard that simulates a ride to orbit on a reusable rocket, has a capsule that separates from the rocket and lands safely floating under a set of parachutes. I believe there are some among us who will try both…just because they can.
After two decades of sometimes quiet and secretive development, commercial launches are finally becoming a reality. And with the growing fleet of Heavy lift reusable vehicles, Space Exploration is finally seeing a well-deserved renaissance. All this tangible capability will finally see mankind return to the Moon and will soon allow it to sail on to Mars. No wonder the excitement in and outside of the Space community is becoming more and more palpable.
Since the utilization of the ISS is now deemed mature and NASA only requires four of the seats under the CCDev program (Commercial Crew Development Program), three seats are available for tourist flights to the ISS on the SpaceX and Boeing vehicles. NASA has often communicated it is in support of seeing tourist flights become common as it is part of the policy of the CCDev program. The excess capacity also might give Orbital Module builders like Bigelow Aerospace and others more access to investment money, now that a way for tourists to frequently visit the space station is becoming available. Professional astronauts from space agencies that desire to buy a seat will also have more opportunities to fly.
NASA has made it clear that they want to transition away from caring for the Space station and start exploring deep space destinations. This they will accomplish with building the small Gateway station in Lunar orbit in the 2020’ies, and a push to develop missions, landers, and ISRU technology for the Moon and Mars, with the help from commercial partners.
A transition to a commercial operation of this costly asset (the ISS required about USD 110 Billion to construct and operate) will require a source of revenue if commercial operators will be seduced to pay for a part of the cost of maintaining the ISS.
Most likely, in say the next three years, we will find out more about the strategies NASA and the international partners will pursue in finding ways to make commercial tourism coexist with nationally funded science and technology mission onboard the ISS.