A Private Space Shuttle

By Guterl, Fred; Conant, Eve | Newsweek International, October 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Private Space Shuttle


Guterl, Fred, Conant, Eve, Newsweek International


Byline: Fred Guterl and Eve Conant

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. …

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