Commercial space efforts necessarily will bring greater safety and reliability to manned spaceflight because providers must compete primarily on that dimension. As is true with commercial aviation, businesses will fail unless safety and reliability come first, regardless of price. The need for a laser-like focus on safety and reliability becomes even more acute when commercial space companies put their own financial skin in the game, offer services on a firm-fixed price basis against competing bidders, and get paid in full only if they perform. In short, a focus on safety and reliability, coupled with the benefits of competition and the proposition of weaning the United States off Russian dependence, are the key elements in answer to the question, “So why is there a push for commercial?” posed by Scott “Doc” Horowitz in his recent Space News commentary [“Commercial Space: What Role Is It Ready For?,” Jan. 25, page 19].
Mr. Horowitz inaccurately depicts prospective commercial space efforts as having “made limited progress.” With respect to SpaceX — the prime example cited — the company has, within a six-year span, successfully brought to market the Falcon 1 launch vehicle (here Mr. Horowitz misstates the company’s launch record and fails to mention its consecutive successful launches) and will launch the Falcon 9 shortly. In addition, the Dragon spacecraft has come from a clean-sheet design in 2006 to launch-ready status. It bears noting that this spacecraft necessarily must be human-rated inasmuch as it will be docking with the international space station.
The notion that an unproven rocket should not carry astronauts is valid, but will be addressed with respect to certain prospective launch providers. For instance, there will be many cargo test flights of the Falcon 9 and Dragon before it carries any passengers. As such, development problems that may arise will be ironed out well in advance of astronaut transport, which stands in contrast to the original plan for Ares 1. Separately, the Atlas and Delta vehicles, with their proven heritage, would appear to be in the running for manned missions.
Safe and reliable domestic commercial transport of cargo, spacecraft, and astronauts to low Earth orbit will save U.S. taxpayers significant money that can be put toward what NASA does best — pushing the frontier. The work must begin now, however, if the United States means to reduce, and eventually eliminate, reliance on Russia at the current cost of $51 million per astronaut, ensure timely return to low Earth orbit after shuttle retirement with domestic providers of launch services, incubate a commercial market, and enable NASA to move forward with a vision that takes us beyond low Earth orbit.
Tim Hughes, vice president, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX),