Imagine boarding a brand new Boeing 747 on your way to Seattle. When you reach your destination a few hours later, after unloading the passengers and cargo, the pilots taxi the aircraft past the end of the runway and dump it into Puget Sound. For the return trip, you board another pristine 747 that will be discarded at the end of the flight. Can you imagine the price of your seat? Although it sounds ridiculous, this basic economic model has been the foundation of most spaceflight until recently.
Aside from the Space Shuttle, the rockets that lift payloads and people into orbit generally tumble back to Earth and fall into the ocean. Even the Mercury and Apollo capsules that brought the astronauts home were often recovered at sea and never reused. But with the Space Shuttle retired since 2011, and the skyrocketing cost of traveling to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians, NASA is now encouraging private companies to innovate and drive down the costs of spaceflight.
“The launch costs are really what make it expensive to fly in space,” says
Steve Lindsey, senior director of space exploration systems at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) in Louisville. Lindsey earned a degree in engineering sciences from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs before becoming an astronaut at NASA and flying on five Shuttle missions over the past two decades. He now oversees the development of a commercial spacecraft called the Dream Chaser at SNC, which NASA recently contracted to deliver cargo to the ISS. The Dream Chaser looks like a miniature version of the Space Shuttle, but with folding wings that allow it to be mounted at the top of a rocket.
“Instead of landing in the water or out in the desert, we can actually land on a conventional runway,” Lindsey says. SNC is one of several private companies that are developing the next generation of vehicles to send cargo, astronauts and even tourists into space. Technology headlines over the past few months have been peppered with the accomplishments of commercial spaceflight pioneers.
In November, a company called Blue Origin launched a rocket booster and capsule from a spaceport in Texas, ascended to the edge of space more than 60 miles above the surface of the planet and then gently landed it back in Texas about 10 minutes later. Last month they reused the same rocket booster to repeat the suborbital trek.
Not to be outdone, Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture launched a two-stage rocket from Florida in December. After separation, the first stage returned to a soft landing on the launch pad while the second stage delivered 11 satellites into orbit. The theme of these achievements is clear: If you can reuse expensive rocket hardware, the launch costs might decrease substantially.
The development of commercial spaceflight over the past two decades has been stimulated by two main factors. When Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927, he won the $25,000 Orteig prize. In hindsight, the prize was an important motivation that accelerated the development of commercial air travel. The 1996 announcement of the $10 million Ansari X Prize had a similar influence on commercial spaceflight, challenging private companies to send a crew of three people to the edge of space twice within two weeks. A team led by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan won the X Prize in 2004, and their technology is now licensed by Richard Branson’s budding space tourism company Virgin Galactic. Other than some wealthy individuals who hitched a ride into orbit with the Russians, space tourism is still in the realm of science fiction for now.
This brings us to the second factor. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA didn’t launch another Space Shuttle until 2005. There was a lot of work remaining to complete the ISS, so NASA continued flying the Space Shuttle until 2011. At the same time, Russia operated their Soyuz spacecraft to send cosmonauts, astronauts and tourists back and forth between Earth and the ISS. In 2006, they charged NASA $22 million for each seat on the Soyuz.
When the Shuttle retired in 2011, the price jumped to $43 million. The current contract with the Russians, which expires at the end of 2017, shells out $71 million per seat. To avoid the escalating prices, NASA has awarded a contract to SpaceX and Boeing to provide crew transport to the ISS beginning in late 2017.
Although SNC in Louisville was passed over for the crew contract, they have continued to develop a crewed version of the Dream Chaser. “At full capacity, it could carry up to seven crew members,” Lindsey explains. The combination of reusable rockets from SpaceX and a soft-landing crew vehicle like the Dream Chaser has the potential to transform the economics of space travel. You may not be able to book a weekend getaway in an orbiting space hotel just yet, but considering how far airline travel has come in the past century, your chance may be just around the corner.
Travis Metcalfe, Ph.D., is a researcher and science communicator based in Boulder. His non-profit organization accepts contributions to support the future of the Lab Notes series at labnotes.whitedwarf.org