Health & Science

Commercial Aerospace Companies Remaking The Economics of Spaceflight

January has been an important month for NASA. The agency received a slight budget increase for 2014, and the government decided the International Space Station will stay in orbit four more years, until 2024. But NASA no longer acts alone — private, for-profit companies are increasingly critical for space exploration.

NASA has hired not one, but two, private companies to launch food and supplies to the international space station.

SpaceX was the first to arrive, in May 2012, with its Dragon capsule.

“The SpaceX team is reporting that Dragon is in free drift, there will be no more engine firings at this point. So, basically, Dragon flying in formation with the International Space Station as Don Pettit reaches out with the arm to latch on to it. Just a few more feet to go…”

Private contractors like Boeing have always worked with NASA, but the difference now is the business model.

Now companies compete with each other, and the contracts are fixed amounts, with lots of accountability built in.

Michael Lopez-Alegria is a former astronaut and president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“They get paid only when they achieve these milestones, so the result is that it’s significant savings to the taxpayer. And the question was ‘Could they do it?’ And now we know the answer.

The commercial space industry is diverse.

Bigelow Aerospace plans to build a private space station that it will rent out to scientists or other countries.

Virgin Galactic and XCOR are testing planes that will rocket to the edge of space and then land.

Lopez-Alegria says 80 percent of the market is expected to be space tourism.

Although the flights aren’t even scheduled, you can already book tickets, and they cost between $75,000 and 250,000 a seat.

In the meantime, the Federation is working on policy, like getting more spaceports built, or crafting laws for outer space.

“If you want to extract resources from an asteroid or from the moon or something like that –  first of all, you’d like to have the precedent that says ‘I can sell whatever I take the trouble to mine.’ And also that somebody else isn’t going to come, and while I’m not there, start using my equipment and all that. And so establishing the rule of law and property rights is important.”

Lopez-Alegria says commercializing space will increase demand, which will lower the cost barriers and actually get more people into space.

“It’s the next great frontier, I mean we really are on the edge, on the cusp, of turning space travel  into something that is democratized so that one day, probably not you and me, but maybe our kids or our grandkids can go into space like you and I think about getting on an airplane.”

And Texas could play a big role — there are proposals to build commercial spaceports in Houston, Midland and Brownsville.