Dec 20 2019

Commercial Spaceflight in the 2020s

To spaceflight enthusiasts, the 2010s was a transitional decade. The shuttle program ended in 2011, and along with it America’s ability to put astronauts into space. We have been hitching rides with the Russians to get to the space station (ISS) ever since. NASA had no plans to replace the shuttle anytime soon, and instead announced that it would focus on deep space capability while relying on commercial companies to take over missions to low Earth orbit. So, after almost a decade, how is this plan working out?

Well, there have been the inevitable delays, but otherwise I think NASA’s plan was a good one. Earlier this year SpaceX successfully tested their Dragon capsule, and they are planning to launch their first astronauts in the first quarter of 2020. SpaceX has had an impressive decade. Not without failures, but the development of reusable rockets able to land vertically is a game-changer for space travel and is definitely an impressive achievement for the company.

Meanwhile, Boeing also received a contract from NASA to develop the capacity to launch people into space. They are about to launch their Starliner capsule to the ISS with supplies as a final test before being approved the take crew. The capsule will also have an “anthropomorphic test device (ATD)”, which is fancy tech speak for a test dummy. The ATD will be loaded with sensors to see what an astronaut will experience during take off and landing. The capsule is designed for a ground landing, using parachutes and airbags to land on desert sand in New Mexico. If all goes well they also plan to launch people in 2020.

Assuming both SpaceX and Boeing successful launch astronauts to the ISS in 2020, this will mark the return to the US of capacity to launch our own astronauts into space. It will also, I think, validate NASA’s vision to cede low Earth orbit to commercial companies, to let them compete and innovate. I have to say, this seems like the type of public-private collaboration that leverages the advantages of both. NASA blazes the trail with the big budgets only governments can provide. Then private companies can come in behind to make things better and cheaper. This is the way to bootstrap our way into space.

NASA’s plan is to be just one of many customers for SpaceX and Boeing. This way they get cheaper access to space by farming it out to private companies, they will support these companies with their business, and the companies can also find new markets for their space services. The next decade is going to tell us a lot about how this plan works out.

So what are the potential other customers? Creating markets is what private companies do, and of course it remains to be seen what will happen. But potentially we could be seeing the beginning of space tourism. As with almost all new technologies, wealthy early adopters will be the first customers, but they will fund the industry and allow innovations and economies of scale to bring down the price. Musk want to help this industry by not only lifting people into space, but using his rockets for rapid travel to distant locations on Earth. Having just completed a trip to New Zealand and Australia, I can see the appeal of this.

In the movie 2001, Hilton had an orbiting space hotel. I think that vision is a long way off, but we might see something like that this century. Even fitting one of Musk’s Starships as a luxury liner, without going to any station, could work. Imagine a 1-2 day trip to low Earth orbit, with the ability to experience prolonged zero G, and to see the Earth from orbit. That would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that could potentially become affordable to the middle class.

There may also be commercial markets, such as asteroid mining, that would make use of these private systems. Asteroid mining is probably the real ticket for major private space flight, as the potential profits are staggering. The right asteroid could contain literally trillions of dollars worth of raw material.

It’s likely that 2020 will therefore be a milestone for space travel, with the first commercial companies carrying people into orbit. The 2020s also likely will mark our return to the moon, which also will heavily involve private companies. (This is not new, as NASA contracted with many private companies during the Apollo missions.) These same companies, with Blue Origin and others, are competing for contracts to build parts of the system that will get us back to the moon. Mainly they are developing the lunar lander.

Boeing also recently announced their proposal for a lunar landing system that is simpler than what NASA currently plans. NASA has said it remains open to competing proposals. Boeing believes it can get to the moon with only three stages, instead of the planned five. And the total number of mission critical elements to get from the Earth to the Moon will be only five with Boeing’s proposed system, as opposed to 11 with the current plans.

Again, this all sounds good, allowing private companies to innovate and propose more efficient systems. By having multiple companies working independently on various systems, NASA is also not putting all its eggs into one basket.

While the 2010s has been transitional, with private companies and even NASA developing their technology mostly in the background (except for SpaceXs amazing vertical landing rockets, which have received much of the attention), the 2020s promise to be a real new era in spaceflight. I suspect, and hope, the big stories in 2020 will be of the take off of commercial spaceflight and the return to the moon, hopefully with a more permanent presence. I also suspect that plans of going to Mars will recede into the background during the next decade. We simply are not ready for this. I think the space program needs to mature for another 20 years or so, and then we can reevaluate how plausible missions to Mars really are. Until then, continue sending robots.

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