On Wednesday, American astronauts are scheduled to finally launch into space once again from American soil on an American rocket, something that hasn’t happened since July 2011, when the space shuttle flew its last mission.
What’s really remarkable is that they will be flying a rocket designed, built and operated by a private company — in this case, SpaceX. In America, where economic freedom and entrepreneurship can still fuel even the biggest of dreams, free enterprise is taking us back into space.
For space buffs like me, that nine years has seemed like an eternity. But even for non-space enthusiasts, the time lost in terms of American leadership in space should have been a concern, if not a humiliation.
During that time, NASA has had to book flights on the dependable but aging Soyuz platform, and under ever more expensive terms. Today, a single seat on Soyuz costs NASA (that’s you, taxpayers) $86 million in American currency paid to Russia, and Russia has jacked up the price 400% over the last decade. NASA will likely end up paying Russia more than $3.4 billion for access to the International Space Station before our dependency is over.
But even that was cheaper than the estimated $450 million cost of a single space shuttle mission, which is part of why the program was phased out. While impressive at its debut, the space shuttle turned out to be an expensive, complicated and troublesome platform that never lived up its billing as efficient and reusable.
Speaking of reusable, the return of American human spaceflight will take place on the SpaceX platform, the first private space company to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Two American astronauts will be launched into space inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle. This completely modern space platform features, among other things, advanced in-flight launch escape capability in order to maintain the safety of the crew in a potential ascent emergency.
Over 70% of SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicle is reusable and available for relatively rapid reuse with minimal refurbishment. For several years now SpaceX has been perfecting the reusability of its platform, and that’s part of why a seat on the Crew Dragon costs NASA just $55 million—a significant savings over Soyuz and a fraction of the cost of the space shuttle. And because Crew Dragon is capable of carrying up to seven astronauts, the cost per seat in the future could be even lower.
So American taxpayers are getting a safer, more advanced and much less expensive manned space program. How did this happen?
Under President George W. Bush, NASA began the move toward privatization in low earth orbit by allowing private space companies to resupply the ISS. This move opened the door for the Obama administration, which was not known for its confidence in the private sector, to turn further to the private sector after existing NASA development efforts fell hopelessly behind and absurdly over budget, and with no political consensus for the huge spending increases necessary to get back on track. It was the right call.
For several years now, private space companies have been launching satellites both for governments and for companies, outside the grip of government bureaucracy and, most important, disrupting the defense contractor model of what the government calls “space acquisitions.” The result is cheaper, better, faster access to low earth orbit, and savings for both taxpayers and the private sector.
Today, with entrepreneurial, private sector space companies driving technological innovation and gaining cost efficiencies, America is returning to leadership in manned space flight. It took too long, but it’s finally here. And because of the superiority of entrepreneurship and free enterprise to government bureaucracy, America’s best days in space are just beginning.