Despite ongoing political turmoil and a worsening public-health crisis, Americans can rejoice in their nation’s triumphs in space. On Sunday, November 15, NASA’s Crew-1 mission successfully launched into orbit. Atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, three NASA astronauts and one JAXA astronaut began a 27-hour journey to the International Space Station, where they will spend the next six months. At 11:01 p.m. Eastern on Monday, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, dubbed Resilience, docked to the International Space Station.
This was the first mission of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. So far, it’s a smashing success, and it demonstrates how private enterprise is transforming access to orbit. SpaceX is leading the charge to bring market forces into outer space.
A week before the launch, NASA and SpaceX completed the certification process that formally approved SpaceX hardware for transporting astronauts. An earlier mission in May, Demo-2, was the first crewed test flight, as well as the final trial run. That mission saw two NASA astronauts, also using SpaceX’s rocket and spacecraft, journey to ISS for a shorter stay. Crew and equipment successfully splashed down in early August to much fanfare. Endeavor, the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-2 mission, is scheduled for use again in March 2021.
The commercialization of crew transport to low-earth orbit began during the Obama administration. In 2010, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Vice President Joe Biden worked hard behind the scenes to secure the requisite funding in the 2010 NASA authorization bill. We’re seeing the fruits of those efforts now. While many believe President-elect Biden will reorient NASA towards Earth observation and climate science once he takes office in January, he almost certainly won’t reverse his earlier achievements by abandoning space exploration and development.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the private sector has a comparative advantage at bringing us to space. Launch costs have fallen to an extraordinary degree, in no small part because of incentives for innovation created by the profit motive. From 1970 to 2000, the cost of getting into orbit was constant: $18,500 per kilogram. Thanks to SpaceX, that number has fallen to $2,720 per kilogram and promises to come down still further. SpaceX’s Starship rocket, currently in development, promises to do even more. Because it is designed to be fully reusable and deliver much heavier payloads, Starship could eventually cost as little as $2 million per launch, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. If that’s true, it would revolutionize missions not only to low-earth orbit, but to the moon and Mars as well.
The previous space age, with Apollo 11 as its crowning achievement, was almost entirely government-driven, but private companies will necessarily play a much greater role in the coming space age. Conventional wisdom previously held that space exploration and development were public goods. Because space-related discoveries were widely available even to those who did not finance them, government was best suited to produce them. But as David Henderson and I note, these arguments “conflate knowledge with technology. The rocket equation is a public good. But the actual rocket is not. For-profit companies have a cost advantage at carrying out many of the tasks previously expected of governments.”
The next Commercial Crew missions, Crew-2 and Crew-3, will also send Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS using Falcon 9 rockets. They are scheduled for March 2021 and September 2021, respectively. A subsequent mission, planned for sometime in 2022, will use Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Atlas V has been in use since 2002, but unlike Falcon 9, it’s not reusable. As for Starliner, its first orbital test mission had to abort before reaching ISS, and the second orbital test flight was delayed to 2021 because of software difficulties. Thus far, SpaceX is the superstar of the Commercial Crew Program.
The successful partnership between NASA and SpaceX gives us plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of U.S. space activities. Although government will not be the main player as it was in decades past, it still has an invaluable role to play. Even with NASA outsourcing transport to the private sector, it’s still poised to make important strides in exploration and pure science. Furthermore, international law requires that states monitor their nationals in space, to ensure fair and equal access to orbit and beyond. With the governments of the spacefaring nations acting as celestial referees, we can expect exciting things from commercial space companies in coming years. And contrary to increasingly popular declinist narratives, the U.S. will be at the forefront of mankind’s second sustained push into the final frontier.