SpaceX’s first, NASA’s last-ditch effort

On the afternoon of May 22, two experienced NASA astronauts are about to make history by boarding a newly developed spacecraft in Florida, on the east coast of the United States, before flying to the International Space Station,media reported.

SpaceX's first, NASA's last-ditch effort

The two astronauts will be among the first to fly into space on a truly private spacecraft, crew Dragon, which SpaceX has developed and operated. The launch may mark a new era for American space industry.

The mission is arguably the culmination of nearly a decade of research and development and collaboration between SpaceX and NASA. If successful, it would mean the first time the Americans have completed an orbital launch on u.S. soil since the Space Shuttle program in 2011. For the past nine years, all U.S. astronauts have flown to the International Space Station in Kazakhstan on Russian rockets.

In addition to being significant to the United States, the manned spaceflight is the last test for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA’s project has many goals, but its most important goal is to get private companies to build the next generation of spacecraft to put American astronauts into orbit, rather than NASA’s own. They want these commercial spacecraft to be able to build them at a lower cost, saving taxpayers money. After the spacecraft is manufactured, these private companies can also make a profit by selling seats on the spacecraft.

In essence, NASA is trying to introduce the capitalist system into the realm of manned spaceflight. “It’s an introductory lesson in capitalism,” said Lori Garver, who served as a NASA administrator under Obama. The government is not good at such things. We’ve been launching rockets for the last 50 years, and all the work is done by the industry. Why can’t we let them take over and we buy services? “

Numbers don’t fool people, and BY BUILDING SPACECRAFT IN THIS WAY, NASA DOES SAVE A LOT OF MONEY, BUT THE NEW MANNED SPACE ECONOMY IS STILL IN ITS INFANCY. “It could be the starting point for something bigger, or more steps to be taken to achieve what’s commercial,” said Jeff G. Gleeson, a space consultant and member of the Augustine Commission, which is responsible for reviewing NASA’s space program. No matter how you look at it, it’s progress. The only uncertainty now is the extent of this progress, and we have to look back at this point before we can draw a conclusion. “

So far, Commercial Crew Program has been mixed in terms of achieving its goals, but more analysts say it offers NASA and companies a new way to explore space that could fundamentally change the landscape of the space economy over the next decade.

New ways to do business

Control of the industry has been firmly in the hands of the government since humans were able to enter space. For the past half-century, NASA has maintained full control of production and design, even though it has hired contractors to build rockets. Immediately after the production of the vehicle is complete, NASA acquires its ownership and operation rights.

As a result, the cost of the rocket has remained high. Since the 1960s, NASA’s budget has ballooned to develop a Saturn V rocket that will carry astronauts to the moon. The agency hopes its next-generation carrier, Space Shuttle, will cut costs, but space Shuttle will cost NASA about $1.6 billion per flight, according to one analyst.

“For the first 50 years, what was holding back space development was space transportation,” Javier said. We can’t reduce costs. “Javier and others argue that NASA’s overly strong safety culture has allowed them to develop their own unique approach, which often makes NASA’s vehicles too complex and more complex than real needs. Moreover, the lack of competition is also an important reason for the high cost of vehicles.

In 2004, the Bush administration called for the space Shuttle project to be scrapped, and that was when an opportunity for experimentation came. After the shuttle stopped operating, NASA still needed to find a way to ship supplies to the International Space Station. NASA wants to find a low-cost solution that allows them to save money on other, more ambitious projects, such as exploring more distant places in space. So NASA officials created a new space business model, which they called the Commercial Orbital Transportation Service, or COTS.

Through the COTS program, NASA will become an investor, not a supervisor. NASA tells companies what kind of rockets or spacecraft they want and invests in these projects. Companies will be responsible for the design and production of these space vehicles.

To help NASA save money, some of the money needed for the project will have to be borne by these companies, which in turn will spur companies to find ways to cut costs. In addition, NASA hopes to have multiple companies involved in the project as a way to promote competition. “With the introduction of competition, development costs will inevitably be reduced, allowing NASA to do other things,” Javier said. “After the design and manufacturing is complete, NASA will act as a customer, buying these services from businesses, just as consumers are buying airline tickets.”

“We don’t want to be the only customers of these companies,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, an aerospace consultant and former NASA executive. We hope that this project will benefit all and the United States as a whole. We are very keen to help reduce the cost of going to space. Because reducing costs is the key to opening up all new markets. “

And the plan did work in reality. COTS chose SpaceX as one of its initial suppliers, and with NASA’s help, the company developed the Falcon 9 rocket and The Dragon warehouse. SpaceX has also used its Falcon 9 rocket to launch several commercial satellites.

After the success of a supplier, NASA decided to go further. During the Obama administration, NASA officials began to consider whether the business model could also be used in other ways, such as shipping astronauts and cargo into space. This is a radical idea for both NASA and lawmakers. “Safety is the biggest concern,” says Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Space and Technology, a space analysis and engineering firm. In the aviation industry, there has been a constant concern about the future of private companies involved. “

In 2014, NASA selected two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s longtime contractor, to build carriers for NASA’s Commercial Crew project.

Vision and reality

Today, the Commercial Crew project is just a stone’s throw from what it really is. But along the way, the implementation of the plan has encountered many obstacles. When NASA first signed contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, the agency hoped that their vehicles would be manned for the first time in 2017. Now it is three years since the original target time. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has exploded twice: one during flight and the other during ground testing. The company’s Crew Dragon also exploded during ground testing. Boeing’s tests didn’t go well earlier, with a number of software errors in its CST-100 Starliner initial test in December 2019.

In the end, SpaceX came out on top in the competition, and NASA is now reviewing the Commercial Crew project to see if it has had the desired effect before it makes its first flight.

Digitally, Crew Dragon’s development costs are much lower than NASA’s other projects. Analysts at Planetary Society estimate that NASA has invested about $6.6 billion in the Crew Dragon project over the past decade.

If NASA had chosen to develop it itself, it would have cost far more than that, saving NASA tens of billions of dollars by working with SpaceX and Boeing, said Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at Planetary Society. “

Of course, these vehicles are hard to compare with what NASA does. Crew Dragon and Starliner are relatively simple aircraft, not comparable to the complex deep-space vehicles NASA has developed in the past. Wayne Hale, a former project manager for the space shuttle program and now a NASA consultant, said: “The vehicles do different things differently. It is difficult to compare the two vehicles in different missions and capabilities. Both Boeing and SpaceX offer rental services that use basic protection, no airlocks, no robotic arms. They’re actually cargo vehicles, unlike the Soyuz. “

In the process of manufacturing this streamlined, serviceable spacecraft, the Commercial Crew program has also achieved its goal of “manufacturing competition”. Freight and manned projects have helped SpaceX become a major player in the industry, which has previously been dominated by the same contractor. Mr Javier said it would help to keep costs low by involving another big company, Boeing. If there was only SpaceX, I wouldn’t say they would, but from an economic point of view, they don’t have to keep prices low because they’re not competing. “

Is the Commercial Crew project really spawning only commercial vehicles? This remains a difficult question to answer. The value of this approach is that it eliminates NASA’s involvement in design meetings and is not leading the entire design and production process. But some experts say THAT because the project is designed to send humans into space, NASA will always need to maintain some level of engagement. The most important thing in the life-safety of astronauts is not what kind of contract NASA will take, but to ensure the safety of astronauts.

“It’s not an insignificant project,” said Christina Chaplain, a former director of the Government Accountability Office who audited the Commercial Crew project. In this project, they have taken a number of steps to ensure that they have more insight into the project. “For example, NASA has set very strict safety standards for Commercial Crew suppliers, which require that the chances of serious injury or death of their aircraft must not exceed one in 270 (a high standard, usually one in 90 per cent of the risk of serious damage to the aircraft at the end of a space shuttle program). NASA also requires suppliers to comply with a very detailed list of safety and technical requirements, many of which evolve as planned.

NEITHER SPACEX NOR BOEING HAS YET TO MEET THIS STANDARD INDEPENDENTLY, NASA’S SECURITY ADVISERS SAID, ADDING THAT NASA MUST ASSIST BOTH COMPANIES THROUGH “SUBSTANTIVE INTERVENTION” THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS. “NASA still has deep expertise that they should continue to use to help develop and execute America’s most complex and challenging space systems,” Patricia Sanders, chairman of the Space Security Advisory Group, said at a conference in May. “

In the eyes of some, it’s not just business, it’s the government’s guidance on business, always pointing to change. “We haven’t completely turned manned spaceflight into a commercial one, ” says Mr Gleason. This is a business world, all services have a price. You buy a ferry ticket, and if you don’t like the ferry ticket you’re offering, you can’t fly into space, and I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet. “

The future of commercial manned space services

NASA says this approach is not suitable for all projects. Some analysts believe that NASA is willing to develop manned spaceflight in this way because, even if the plan is not successful, NASA has a back-up plan: Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft rocket. “Without such an alternative, the risk would be greater, ” says Mr Chaplin. If this model does not succeed, the Government must have a back-up programme. “

But it is clear that the Commercial Crew project has been a success, and NASA hopes this model will be used on its more important projects, such as sending humans to the moon. By the end of April, NASA had signed preliminary contracts with three major companies to develop human lunar landers, including SpaceX.

Like Commercial Crew, experts say, the move could help NASA save more money, but it’s unclear what new markets humans can offer to commercial companies by landing on the moon. “There is no clear commercial market for lunar activity at the moment,” Mr Christensen said. Not today, and i don’t know if there will be any future. But in addition to the United States, there are other countries that want to explore the moon, but they are not able to complete such projects on their own. “

As NASA begins to look ahead to its next project, it remains to be seen that Commercial Crew will not be able to find new customers beyond NASA. The success of this model through the COTS project was due to the demand for rockets: man-made satellite launches. “The new project is the complete opposite of the Commercial Cargo project, which is the first to have a market demand for satellites to be launched into low-altitude orbits, ” says Mr Dreher. Now the opposite is true: first to achieve a capability, and then to look for market demand. “

SpaceX and Boeing are the only options that aren’t many companies offering low-altitude rail transportation. “It’s like a chicken laying eggs and eggs,” says TheR. One of the originals in which the Earth’s low-altitude orbit transportation rarely involves enterprises is that the cost is too high. By helping companies build cheaper transportation systems, costs are reduced and then companies get involved. Of course, this is only a theoretical statement. “

SpaceX has previously announced that individual consumers have expressed interest in flying the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The company has already sold four seats, and in 2021 the individual consumers will travel around the world in a spaceship. The company also plans to eventually send consumers to a private space station developed by a commercial company called Axiom. There is plenty of evidence that SpaceX will one day send Tom Cruise to the International Space Station to make new movies.

For now, everything is moving in the right direction, but a few advances do not mean the success of the whole mission. As with any emerging market, we will eventually need time to test whether this model will work and whether this new way of “travel” is sustainable.

“It’s encouraging that these services have attracted some commercial customers,” Grayson said. Of course, if this kind of travel can grow to more than just three trips, but three times a year or three times a year, we will be very excited, and then we will get everything we want. I’m not sure if it will happen, but I certainly hope so. “