While America was mostly otherwise occupied this weekend, a landmark event took place: Two astronauts flew to a successful docking with the International Space Station (ISS).
They weren’t the first humans to reach the ISS — in fact, there was already a Russian-American crew on board to greet them — but it was the first time a commercially-owned and built spacecraft carried humans there. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was the company that did it.
To be sure, the event was by no means without the patriotic trappings associated with American space programs. The flight was, after all, a NASA venture. (The “N” in NASA still stands for “National,” don’t forget.)
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump flew to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the takeoff from a special viewing site, lined with American flags. The president recently set the goal for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024; this ISS excursion is a step toward that.
But if astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the launch pad were sitting atop six decades of American pathfinding in space, they were also sitting atop two and a half centuries of American entrepreneurship.
In what will, no doubt, be typical of future commercial flights, Behnken and Hurley rode to the launchpad in a pair of white Teslas, an imbedded ad for Musk’s electric car company. Expect more of the same. Who knows, by 2024, the presidential candidates may be buying ad time on a lunar shot.
Another mark of the commercialization of space is that Elon Musk’s name is a lot better known than those of Behnken and Hurley. Compare that with John Glenn or Neil Armstrong versus whoever was the chief administrator of NASA at the time (James E. Webb and Thomas O. Paine, respectively).
But these are arguably trivial points compared to the major selling point: Cost. Privately-owned SpaceX did the job for a fraction of the cost of the government-run NASA operation.
The total cost of developing the Shuttle orbiter — just the spaceplane itself, sans booster rockets — was $27.4 billion in 2019 dollars. The SpaceX Dragon program cost NASA just $1.7 billion, according to the Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group, using NASA’s own figures.
As such, the Economist hailed Dragon as “the cheapest human-rated spaceship ever developed in America.”
The explanation of such a staggering cost differential is not that NASA was sitting atop a massive boondoggle.
The Economist adduced two reasons for the difference: First, that SpaceX made economizing a priority. This has led to innovations such as reusability, as in the company’s Falcon rockets, which can fly back to Earth and land on ships at sea, and later return to service.
The second reason was NASA’s own decision to take a not-so-small step back in its method of procurement. The old way (the “good old way,” from the viewpoint of its favorite clients) was to award contracts on the basis of rigid specifications, with profit guarantees for the suppliers.
The egregious costs finally prompted NASA administrator Mike Griffin to redesign the process in the mid-2000s. The new regime invited startups to compete with the aerospace giants, and instead of dictating specifications, NASA told them what it wanted a rocket to do (take cargo to the ISS, for instance) and then let the competitors work out the details on their own.
These changes allowed the profit motive to work for NASA instead of against it, as competing companies sought ways to get to the same place for less money.
Another advantage of commercialization: an end to reliance on Russia. Since the last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011, the U.S. has found itself in the embarrassing position of having to pay Russia to take its astronauts to the ISS.
Soyuz has been charging $86 million per seat. The bill for hauling 38 American astronauts during those years came to over $3 billion. Compare that with an estimated $55 million per seat for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, or even as much as $70 million for the Boeing Starliner.
Cooperation with Russia in space has been a good thing. During the Cold War, the race for space was inspired by fears that the other side would weaponize the cosmos first. Russians and Americans working together on the space shuttle demonstrated that humanity could export peace beyond the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has provided reasons to be wary of such cooperation in the future. It won’t necessarily mean jettisoning binational projects (a NASA spokesperson told Wired the agency expects to continue flying mixed crews for an indefinite time), but it will restore a worthwhile independence to America’s spacegoing capability.
For all the cost analysis, though, there was no lack of excitement at the latest launch. Crowds of people around the site joined in chanting the countdown, and as the rocket lifted off, cheers and applause erupted from employees, reporters and spectators.
They were cheering for a new era. An era of cheaper, more self-reliant space travel.