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Space explorations and the space industry, as a whole, in the US had been for a long time been solely associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration agency (NASA). However, in the recent years, private players and companies have entered into the industry after the federal government, through NASA, commercialized the space industry due to several factors. The factors included NASA’s need to contract cargo deliveries to its crew in the International Space Station(ISS) directly from the US (Dawson, 2016) and free up resources to focus on NASA’s major projects. After being invited into the space industry, private companies initiated various commercial ventures such as Space tourism has also developed as a potential venture for the very elite of society that were beneficial and profit making. In this article, I explore the various reasons behind the commercialization and private sector involvement in the space industry, the various programs that were introduced by NASA to facilitate commercialization of the space industry and the consequent entrepreneurial ventures that came up due to involvement of the private sector.
The major reason that initiated NASA’s quest to open up to the private sector was a need to deliver crew members and cargo to the ISS directly from the US. Consequently, in the year 2006, the government created several programs to facilitate the achieving of this objective. A program known as Commercial Crew & Cargo Program (C3PO) and Commercial Orbital Transportation Services(COTS) was established with an aim of offering contracts to private companies to supply the cargo and deliver crew directly from the US (Dawson, 2016) to the ISS. An estimated $800M investment in the COTS by NASA that led to production of two 2 new launchers and 2 new ISS cargo carriers (Martin, 2015).
As part of the COTS program, The Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) that was tasked with resupplying necessary commodities to crew members on the ISS unit was also established. Another program introduced in 2010 was the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) was also tasked with facilitating the delivery of cargo and crew to the ISS. According to NASA’s program manager for Commercial Crew Program (CCP) Kathryn Lueders, the ISS was to be converted into a scientific lab that would focus on testing several outer space components. Consequently, crew members for the ISS and required cargo such as personal effects, food rations and other equipment would have to be transported to the ISS lab to perform scientific research.
Another reason that pushed NASA to commercialize their operations was an interest to benefit from the competitiveness that would ensue consequent to involvement of the private sector, a benefit that was elusive with government funding because the government prioritized several factors like safety, jobs among other concerns. However, with the private industry, the sky would be the limit because companies would try to outperform each other in a bid to win tenders. As a result, brilliant ideas like development of cost efficient equipment would come up and benefit the entire space industry. An example of beneficial competitiveness was how SpaceX (SpaceX, Hawthorne, CA, US) developed a software for Falcon 9 at costs that were 10 times less costly as compared to what NASA spent developing the same software(Martin,). As a result of inviting the private sector into the space industry, NASA would focus on accomplishing its goals. Other examples of beneficial advantages of opening up the space industry include the 1300 satellites that are orbiting the space providing essential services like GPS, TV signals and other space based technologies (Dawson, 2016)
In 2008, CRS for the first time contracted two private companies to offer resupplies to the ISS from December of 2008 to 2018 in what was known as CRS-1. The two companies were Orbital ATK (Dulles, VA, US) and SpaceX under the common name of Space Exploration Technologies (Dawson, 2016). SpaceX engineered its spacecraft known as Dragon that made the first ever landing of a cargo ship to the ISS (Dawson, 2016). Dragon, although non-reusable, was designed in a way that it could reenter earth from space by means of a parachute and make a landing into large water bodies like the ocean. This was considered beneficial as cargo such as specimen results could be resent from the ISS to earth after experiments were concluded. Orbital ATK used its cargo ship Cygnus to make eight deliveries to the ISS. On the other hand, SpaceX has done twelve deliveries to the ISS (Martin, 2015). In the year 2016, both space crafts were hosted on the ISS which has a capability of hosting 6 ships (Dawson, 2016).
CRS reviewed the requirements for private contractors to include a compartment that would enable crew members abort the launch mission safely in case things went wrong during the launch. In 2016, Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems (SNS, Louisville, CO, Us) using its cargo ship Dream Chaser SpaceSystem (DCSS) met these requirements and won the second contract, CRS-2, to resupply goods to the ISS from 2019 to 2024(Dawson,2016). The CCP awarded contracts to The Boeing Co. (Chicago, IL, Us) and SpaceX to design and develop space crafts with capabilities of transporting both crew members and cargo to the ISS, such space crafts would lower transport costs. Boeing immediately embarked on designing a spacecraft known as Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) Starliner equipped with the capability of carrying both crew and cargo to the ISS simultaneously. In addition to these two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, several other companies like Sierra Nevada are potential contactors that can bid for similar contacts from the CCP (Dawson, 2016).
NASA has also commissioned several private companies to spearhead development of technological systems and equipment to enable it achieve its mission to take humans to Mars. For example, the firm SNC was mandated with preparing critical hardware components for the Mars mission that was projected to be accomplished in 2020 (Dawson, 2016). The company Boeing was also tasked with building a new Space Launch System (SLS) for missions that would involve exploring beyond the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as Dawson noted in his article. The Orion spacecraft that NASA intends to send out into deep space in its pilot exploration mission dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) will test these new systems that NASA has established for the first time (Hambleton, 2018). NASA has also benefited from partnering with private companies like Boeing in its 50/50 joint venture. The two partners, NASA/Boeing, jointly developed the first cryotank with the rare capability of storing liquid hydrogen or oxygen in the year 2014 (Darwin, 2016). A cryotank is an example of a composite tank that will reduce the weight of the spacecraft components by approximately 30% and contribute to lowering the cost of production by approximately 25% compared with the manufacturing costs associated with using the best available metals in making fuel tanks (Granath, 2017). Orbital ATK was also included in NASA’s experimental ventures and was awarded a contract to study the space that exists between the earth and the moon, also known as the cislunar space, using its spacecraft Cygnus.
For man to explore deep space, spaceship design improvements will have to be made to raise the launch vehicle-to-payload ratio to greater than 600:1 from the existing ratio of 20:1 that is only capable of exploring to the moon (Martin, 2015). This is according to John Vickers, the cryotank project manager at NASA, who admits joint ventures between the private sector and NASA will play a great role in enabling future travel to the deep space, for example the travel to Mars, through manufacture of composites. Manufacturing of composites has thus become an attractive business venture to various private companies. As mentioned earlier, a close partnership between NASA and Boeing came up with the first cryogenic tank that was produced using out-of-autoclave-manufacturing technology (OAA) solely because none of the existing autoclaves could develop a model fuel tank of the requisite 8.4-metre diameter (Beck,2014). The model developed was a 5.5-metre-diameter as a demonstration of “Composite Cryogenic Demonstration Project that is funded by the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate within the Game Changing Program Office” (Beck, 2014).
One of the greatest, lucrative and attractive venture is available for the private investors who have aimed at providing space tourism services. Space is divided into suborbital, orbital and deep space depending on the distance from the earth. All these three orbital spaces are potential targets for space tourism. The suborbital space, in which the spacecraft reaches to 100 km into space is the first target for companies with seats selling at $250K for an adventure with Virgin Galactic and $95K (Mark I)/$100K (Mark II) per seat for a single passage and pilot with the Lynx (Martin). There are prospects of enabling travel from different points on earth using this suborbital space as Martin notes in his article. The orbital space consists of two parts, LEO and the High Earth Orbit(HEO) based on how far from earth these orbits extend. The LEO extends for 180 km to 3000 km while the HEO extends to a geocentric 35786 km. In order to experience such an adventure, one will have to part with $20M-$40M per trip for a spaceship that can accommodate up to 7 passengers. There is also an option for one to enjoy long time periods at the ISS or on private space stations which will also be costly according to Martin. It is also in these orbital space where private firms launch their satellites to provide various services like the GPS and where satellites are also serviced. The last orbital space is known as the deep space. Destinations like the moon and Mars exist in this space and offer the ultimate exotic experience like the much awaited maiden landing on Mars. Golden Spike is a private company that has explored this venture and will sell a single seat at a whopping $750M for a trip to the moon (Martin, 2015.)
Other attractive ventures for the private companies are several research opportunities for the different space domains. The suborbital space offers conditions for microgravity testing for approximately four minutes, upper atmospheric measurements can also be done alongside technological demonstrations and life science experiments (Martin, 2015). In the orbital space, possible applications include launching of small satellites from the ISS and conducting continuous experiments on microgravity and life science demonstrations. The deep space on its part offers research opportunities on developing new materials and processes to create new markets and ultimately develop an in-space economy (Martin, 2015).
To sum it all, NASA’s decision to open up the space to private sector has been beneficial for both NASA and the involved companies. Being pushed by the need to resupply crew and cargo to the ISS, NASA had to resort to contracting private companies by opening up various programs like COTS to facilitate tendering private firms. Commercial space tourism and composite manufacturing of space equipment have also developed after inviting the private sector into the space industry. Both NASA and these industries have benefited from competitive advantages and there is promise for further improvements and investments in the US commercial space industry as man aspires to explore further into deep space.
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