A New Chapter In Space Exploration Opens

Elon Musk will have a smile on his face today. The National Aeronautical and Space Agency, known as NASA to most of us, has announc...

Elon Musk will have a smile on his face today.

The National Aeronautical and Space Agency, known as NASA to most of us, has announced the awarding of two much anticipated contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The contracts worth an eye-watering US$6 billion have been given to Boeing and SpaceX in a deal that will see US astronauts taking off from US soil once again after a hiatus of some three years.

Speaking from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, said the contracts set "the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human spaceflight”. Relying so heavily on contractors to take astronauts to space would allow the agency “to focus on an even more ambitious mission - that of sending humans to Mars”.

For a few years now, since the retirement of NASA’s aging fleet of space shuttles, the US has relied on Russia to send its crews into space. This announcement is a big step towards ending this reliance. The Russian ‘taxi rides’ have not come cheap with each seat costing a total of US$71 million or about US$400 million a year. Assuming the schedule doesn’t slip and safety concerns do not stall the planned launches, NASA will be launching astronauts into space from American soil as soon as 2017.

This shift in policy and awarding of space contracts to private companies is a significant shift for NASA, which had previously designed and owned its own rockets. Now, and instead of going to space on government-owned vehicles, NASA’s astronauts would essentially rent space on ships provided by Boeing and SpaceX.

“(The contracts) highlight what commercial companies can accomplish and we are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew programme manager.

In addition to continuing to develop and test the companies’ vehicles, each contract calls for up to six flights to the space station once the ships are certified by NASA.

Boeing has been awarded the larger slice of the contract with a value of up to US$4.2 billion and SpaceX, which was started by Tesla’s Elon Musk, a smaller US$2.6 billion. As both the contracts appear to be for the same requirement and number of flights, it is assumed that Musk has found a cheaper way of building a rocket, something that has to be good for the American taxpayer.

The awarding of this contract in part to SpaceX is a huge feather in the cap for Musk’s SpaceX and can be seen as further evidence that the company has truly transformed from wannabe to a major player in the market, even though they already have a history of delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

Musk had earlier sued the US Airforce over a separate issue regarding the launching of military payloads into space, such as communication satellites. He argued that the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch system was a lower cost alternative to established player United Launch Alliance, a JV between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who sourced the engines for their Atlas V rockets from Russia.

NASA has been looking to get back into the launch business since before they retired their last shuttles and as a part of this announcement, they already signalled their intention of greater exploration, perhaps even manned, to Mars. This news is also welcomed by one of the sponsors of this Blog, the X-1R Corporation, who has been supplying NASA with products since 1995 and is still doing so.

image: bloomberg.com


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