Things are looking up again in low Earth orbit. Between 180 and 2,000 kilometers, this region of space has hosted a majority of human spaceflights and includes the International Space Station (ISS). Despite the failure last month of a SpaceX cargo rocket bound for the station, NASA continues its commitment to commercial space missions. As such, the agency announced the four astronauts chosen to fly on the first manned U.S. flights. These missions will be the first in four years to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil, in a bid to eventually end NASA’s reliance on Russia for access to orbit. “It’s a milestone announcement,” says space history expert Robert Pearlman. “It sends the message that these flights are closer than the general public might think.” NASA aims to send the first commercial crew missions to the ISS in late 2017 but further mishaps or technical hurdles could imperil that timeline.
The chosen four—Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams—are decorated military veterans and pilots turned astronauts. Combined, they have spent over a year in space, orbiting Earth hundreds of times. Williams holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut, chalking up 50 hours and 40 minutes. “These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail—a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
NASA has partnered with two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to build spacecraft for ISS resupply and manned commercial missions. Aviation titan Boeing has a $4.2-billion deal with NASA; Elon Musk’s SpaceX holds a separate $2.6-billion contract. Each company is guaranteed two service flights, with the possibility of winning any number of four currently unclaimed future flights, according to Boeing spokesperson Kelly Kaplan.
The June SpaceX accident has complicated the company’s image as the front-runner of the commercial space race. Although the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule involved in the June 28 failure were intended only for cargo, SpaceX intends to use similar spacecraft on manned missions. If the rocket had been equipped with an escape system, astronauts would likely survive the crash, Pearlman says. But even routine mission aborts place astronauts in harrowing conditions. Both Boeing and SpaceX plan to test in-flight aborts in early 2017.
Flying space station crews on commercial flights mark a dramatic departure from tradition. This move enables NASA to use its own funds and resources to focus on designing spacecraft for more challenging deep-space missions—meaning expeditions beyond Earth orbit, such as to the moon and asteroids, and eventually Mars. This year has been marked by a string of mishaps: Three of the four types of unmanned spacecraft that currently carry cargo to the station failed to reach their destination. (One was the June SpaceX accident; a Russian Progress vehicle and a commercial Orbital ATK capsule also suffered recent failures. On July 5, however, another Progress craft successfully delivered supplies to the ISS.)
Space has always marked an anomaly in America’s preferred path for technology development, according to U.S. Naval War College space policy expert Joan Johnson-Freese. For other landmark technologies like cars, planes and computers, the government provided seed money or infrastructure until the private sector could take over development, according to Johnson-Freese. Traditionally, however, NASA has developed its space technology in-house, using commercial contractors to build its rockets and spacecraft to the agency’s exacting specifications while retaining ownership of the products. Now the private sector is designing and constructing its own technology and simply hiring it out to NASA for use. The companies are investing some of their own money into the project—along with contributions from NASA—giving them a strong stake in their vehicle’s success. This outsourcing saves the agency money and may help to spawn a larger commercial space industry.
NASA’s reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets to shuttle U.S. astronauts to the space station has a per-seat price tag of around $70.7 million, a fee that has been rising with inflation, Pearlman says. Boeing and SpaceX’s vehicles would reduce that cost to roughly $58 million and redirect that money to U.S companies. “It’s really critical for the United States to regain its own launch capability,” Williams, one of the chosen astronauts, said in an interview for NASATV. “That’s going to allow us to further our abilities and advance our technologies to build the next generation of spacecraft for the next generation of space explorers.”
Encouraging commercial competition may also encourage improved spacecraft design. The competition between Boeing and SpaceX should foment innovation in design and efficiency as well as give the U.S. assured access to space, Pearlman says. “You do not want to put all your eggs in one basket,” says space policy expert Roger Handberg of the University of Central Florida. “You need to have alternative ways to get into space just in case you have a bad day, like SpaceX did on June 28.”
The recent and unfortunate streak of accidents has called into question the future of quality control in a sector designed to cut costs. The defects that caused SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to disintegrate must be resolved before the company can consider flying astronauts onboard. NASA had always been able to navigate the costs of space development on the grounds that the agency did not make any money off of its success. But commercial spaceflight is inherently tied to profit. Some critics—including certain lawmakers in Congress—worry that this means the private sector may eventually start to cut corners. These shortcuts could endanger the quality of the spacecraft and, by extension, the lives of the astronauts, Handberg says.
Meanwhile, NASA’s funding faces dangers of its own. In Congress the already dwindling support for NASA may be in jeopardy. One of the agency’s staunchest defenders, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who flew on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, is recovering from prostate cancer surgery. Nelson is the ranking member of the committee that oversees NASA. “Nelson kept the NASA budget alive and running,” Handberg says. “There’s no one else driving to do that.” The 2015 NASA budgetary request totaled to $17.4 billion, a cut of just over $250 million dollars from 2014. As the money keeps slipping, launch dates do, too. In December 2014 NASA’s projected 2017 test flight date for its deep-space Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft was pushed to mid-2018, thanks to uncertainty in funding, among other problems.
America’s ambitious goals for manned deep-space exploration continue to exceed the current bounds of political and financial support, Johnson-Freese says. Even with a space budget that dwarfs those of other nations, NASA cannot afford to produce the space spectaculars needed to hold public interest. The titanic political motivation and budget that enabled the moonwalk have waned, and America now seems to support space exploration only in concept, not practice. National polls show the public would rather see funding go to defense, education and health care. “We’re no longer in the days of Apollo,” Handberg says. “It was a different world, where you were building on a blank slate. Now the slate’s filled up and you have to make your money work the best you can.”