The last several weeks have been dominated by headlines about a peculiar race between suborbital spaceflight companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic: which company would be the first to fly its founder to space? After some back-and-forth developments, Virgin Galactic won the race July 11 when its SpaceShipTwo sent Richard Branson and five company employees into the skies above New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Jeff Bezos, though, won’t be far behind, as he is set to fly on New Shepard July 20 as part of a crew that will include both the oldest and youngest persons to go to space.
The flights, and the competition itself, got plenty of attention — who doesn’t like a battle of the billionaires? — but it’s not the most important race in commercial human spaceflight today. A more fundamental competition is taking shape, pitting companies against the clock. Can those companies establish a human presence in low Earth orbit before the International Space Station is retired around 2030?
There have been encouraging signs in the last year. Axiom Space announced its first mission to the ISS, scheduled for launch early next year carrying three customers and a former NASA astronaut as commander of a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Axiom has also signed a deal with SpaceX for three more Crew Dragon missions and raised funding to build modules it will attach to the ISS and later serve as a core of a commercial station.
However, one company doesn’t make for an industry. SpaceX has sold another Crew Dragon flight to the “Inspiration4” project, a standalone mission launching as soon as September, but that is a one-off effort intended to help raise money for St Jude’s Hospital. Space Adventures has its own contract for a Crew Dragon mission but has not announced a launch date or crew for it and seems more focused on flying people on Soyuz missions.
Then there’s the development of commercial space stations. Besides Axiom, companies like Nanoracks and Sierra Space have shown an interest. They and others are likely to submit proposals this summer to NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program, which will offer funded Space Act Agreements to support initial design studies of those stations.
But that NASA program has problems of its own. While NASA requested a little more than $100 million for commercial LEO development in its fiscal year 2022 budget proposal in May, House appropriators July 15 approved a bill that gives the program just $45 million. The report accompanying the bill criticized NASA for a lack of “clear goals and metrics for the transition” from the ISS to commercial stations.
NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is also examining the issue. The panel warned July 15 that a funding cut for the Commercial LEO Destinations program could delay it or force NASA to select fewer companies.
The panel is worried about other effects of commercial activities on the ISS during that transition period. Those private astronauts will get less training than professional ones, creating the potential for safety risks, they warned, saying companies and NASA should set “realistic expectations” about the length of training.
There are business risks as well. For years, Bigelow Aerospace was the leader in developing inflatable modules intended for commercial space stations. Bigelow, though, furloughed all its employees in the early weeks of the pandemic last year and still appears to be in stasis. The company is not listed among the “interested parties” that participated in briefings about NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program.
Suborbital human spaceflight may yet still prove profitable, but it is not on the critical path once thought to a greater human presence in space. The next decade will be crucial, as companies not only have to develop the technical capabilities for human spaceflight but also build a business case for it, raise funding and deal with the inevitable policy issues — and do it all in time to enable a smooth transition from the ISS. It will be a more complex race than dueling billionaires, but potentially a more rewarding one.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the July 2021 issue.