Later this week (Wednesday’s scheduled launch was scrubbed), American astronauts are scheduled to finally once again launch from American soil (Cape Canaveral) on an American rocket into space, something that hasn’t happened since July of 2011, when the Space Shuttle flew its last mission. But 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 into space.
For us space buffs, 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) $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.
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. And a seat on the Crew Dragon costs NASA about half the price of a seat on Soyuz.
So American taxpayers are getting a safer, more advanced and much less expensive manned space program. And the key is the private sector.
Under President George W. Bush, NASA began the move toward privatization by allowing private space companies to resupply the ISS. And the Obama administration turned further to the private sector after existing NASA development efforts fell hopelessly behind and over budget. It was the right call.
Ever since, 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 “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.
(A longer version of this PolicyByte was published in the Orlando Sentinel.)