After Shuttle, America's Space Future in Hands of Private Entrepreneurs

Falcon-9 rocket can launch for one-tenth the cost; mission to Mars isn't far-fetched
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: July 9, 2011 3:55 AM

Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Phil Plait

Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Phil Plait

After the space shuttle Atlantis returns from the program's final flight, America's future suborbital missions will be contracted out to a growing array of commercial ventures. Privateers say they can conduct deep-space probes as well and far cheaper than NASA.

Following this last 12-day Atlantis mission from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is building a Falcon-9 Heavy rocket capable of lifting hefty 53-ton payloads into orbit.

SpaceX, as it's called, has already successfully flown its Dragon capsule, making the California company the first commercial enterprise to launch, fly, land and recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit

Elsewhere, Boeing is developing a CST-100 capsule capable of holding up to seven crew members and reused several times.

Sierra Nevada, Virgin Atlantic and Blue Origin are among the other companies actively working on new, private space initiatives.

"Falcon-9 Heavy launches are priced at about $100 million each, and Dragons are cheaper. With this approach, we could send expeditions to Mars at half the cost to launch as space shuttle flight," predicts Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics of Lakewood, Colo.

Frank DiBello Mug

Frank DiBello

On track for an inaugural launch in 2013, the Falcon-9 will help bridge the "space gap" until a shuttle-less NASA can get back in the game. Congress wants the agency to have an operational program by 2016, though -- amid continued wrangling with the Obama administration -- it's unclear that the necessary funding will be available.

"NASA's astronauts have gone nowhere new since 1972, but these four decades of wasteful stagnation need not continue. If President Obama were to act decisively and embrace [private ventures], we could have our first team of human explorers on the Red Planet by 2016," said Zubrin, who also heads the Mars Society.

Phil Plait, who worked on the Hubble telescope and writes Discover Magazine's Bad Astronomy blog, shares Zubrin's enthusiasm.

"SpaceX went from an idea to launching their first Falcon-9 orbital rocket in less than a decade," Plait wrote recently. It is currently undergoing testing to meet NASA's man-rating qualifications.

While the new space cowboys raise their sights, NASA has been flying in circles.

For all its initial innovation and impressive accomplishments -- including dozens of landmark scientific advances -- the shuttle program has stagnated. Less durable than advertised, the fleet of "space trucks" flew fewer missions than hoped and operational costs never came down. The tragic explosions of Challenger and Columbia signaled the beginning of the end. 

Elon Musk, the co-creator of PayPal and founder of SpaceX, estimates that his company's Falcon-9 rocket can launch for one-tenth the cost of a shuttle flight. NASA has already contracted with SpaceX to resupply the International Space Station after the shuttle retires.

Looking beyond, Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, says the nation can do better than "spending $10 billion per year for the next two or three decades on a human space flight program mired in low Earth orbit."

Suggests Plait: "Let private companies take over low Earth operations and let NASA be free to pursue literally higher goals."

Whichever way the duties are divided, private ventures will play an increasing role in America's future space exploration. At minimum, companies like SpaceX can offer a home-grown alternative to the Russians, who will charge U.S. astronauts more than $50 million per seat on Soyuz rocket trips to the ISS.

"Atlantis will touch down on July 20 -- the very day, 42 years ago, that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon," Plait notes.

"How long will it be before we see something like that again?"

Space Florida President Frank DiBello said Floridians need not be concerned about the envisioned transition toward more private ventures.

"While shuttle retirement will certainly impact Florida in the near term, there is an incredibly bright future for next-generation space programs in Florida," he said.

"I see a tripling of Florida's space industry by 2020 as we work with diversified, space-enabled markets -- such as satellite systems, robotics, clean energy, emergency and environmental monitoring, life sciences, and space tourism -- to establish and grow their businesses here in the Sunshine State," DiBello said in a statement.


Contact KenricWard at or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (9)

9:51AM JUL 14TH 2011
"America's future suborbital missions will be contracted out to a growing array of commercial ventures."

Kenric Ward doesn't seem to know the difference between "suborbital" and "low earth orbit." Typical scientific illiteracy rampant throughout today's journalism circles.
8:29AM JUL 13TH 2011
gaetano marano
12:21PM JUL 9TH 2011

the ISS was a three-beds-only space-hotel, while, now, after its upgrade, the ISS is a six-bed-only space-hotel (a total of 12 astronauts per year with crew rotation) but, since it’s an INTERNATIONAL space-hotel, two of these astronauts (four per year) are european, two (four per year) russian and ONLY two (four per year) american

well, the FOUR european and russian astronauts (eight per year) always will use the Soyuz to fly to/from the ISS, since it’s a ready available, cheap and very reliable spacecraft

of course, the TWO american astronauts (four per year) will fly on Soyuz capsules from late 2011 to 2017 and the MPCV-Orion from 2018 to 2020, when the ISS should be de-orbited and burned in the atmosphere

so, the total number of american astronauts that will fly to the ISS should be around 9*4+2=38 but ONLY if each astronaut will fly ONCE

clearly, it’s not rational to train an astronaut to fly only ONCE, then, each astronaut should fly at least four times in 2012-2020, reducing the total number of NASA astronauts (with some backup astronauts) to ONLY 10-15 between 2011 and 2020

and, of course, since the ISS is an “hotel for six” and ONLY TWO of them can be americans, ALL these 10-15 astronaut will fly to the ISS with Soyuz and Orion

so, when one or more of the “american Soyuz capsules” called “Dragon” or “Blue Kliper” or “CST-pollo” and “Dream(only)chaser” (that “should” fly with crews around 2016-2018) will be available, should NOT have a MARKET, since the ISS does NOT have enough “beds & breakfast” ALSO for the “commercial astronauts”

Shuttle era: 30 years (1981-2011) 135 missions, 900+ astronauts, 2000 tons of (high value & resupply) cargo to LEO (+ the astronauts and cargo launched with Soyuz and Progress)

Soyuz+Orion era: only 9 years (2011-2020) about 20 crew missions, 38 american astronauts, about 100 tons of cargo-resupply-only carried with Progress, ATV, HTV, Dragon and Cygnus

“commercial spacecrafts” era: it may happen only after 2016 and only for cargo, while, the crew missions may never happen in this decade, since… 1. the Soyuz and Orion missions will be more than enough for the ISS and… 2. after 2020, the ISS should no longer exist, so, ZERO places to go = ZERO manned and cargo missions

2:59PM JUL 9TH 2011
"..after 2020, the ISS should no longer exist, so, ZERO places to go = ZERO manned and cargo missions"

You forgot about Bigelow and Almaz.
gaetano marano
11:51PM JUL 10TH 2011

yes, and I forgot also the Star Trek Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon ... :)

2:57PM JUL 9TH 2011
"..after 2020, the ISS should no longer exist, so, ZERO places to go = ZERO manned and cargo missions"

You forgot about Bigelow and Almaz.
2:56PM JUL 9TH 2011
"..after 2020, the ISS should no longer exist, so, ZERO places to go = ZERO manned and cargo missions"

You forgot about Bigelow and Almaz.
11:36AM JUL 9TH 2011
I love it. Obama has been the one pushing private enterprise. He has pushed hard for larger funding for private space. It is the communist in CONgress that are fight it. Ppl like Shelby(R), Wolf(R), Hatch(R), Hutchinson(R), and Nelson(D) are the ones opposed to private space. They want SLS which is Shuttle II. IOW, it will costs 1.5 B (or more) to launch 140 tonnes while Falcon Heavy will cost .1 B to launch slighty more than 1/3 of the SLS (54 tonnes).
Robert blames the wrong guy here. It is the communists in CONgress that are working to kill things.
7:27AM JUL 9TH 2011
Of course it will be lower in cost; it is not the Government. Private sector spends its own money and it is driven by a "profit motive." It's NOT ROCKET SCIENCE!

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