Whenever a group of people put tons of high explosives into a fragile metal tube and set that tube on fire, there are bound to be mishaps. No matter how advanced the equipment or how much funding is provided by Congress, a rocket launch is still a controlled explosion. This is what people are saying when they quip, “Space is hard.” Space is hard because until we perfect antigravity or the space elevator, we will be forced to send our people and our stuff into space on columns of smoke and fire.
However, there are choices we can take to minimize risk and maximize benefits. SpaceX and Boeing are developing two new spacecraft for America’s astronauts as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Congress is on the verge of underfunding this unique public-private partnership by $300 million, consigning the program to more delays. Even worse, the Falcon 9 explosion on June 28, despite being the first SpaceX failure after 18 successful launches, is being used by some to argue that commercial crew is not an appropriate method for supporting government space operations.
This could not be further from the truth. Here is why:
- Commercial crew will provide redundancy. The Falcon 9 explosion illustrates why it is essential for the United States to have multiple launch providers. Maintaining uninterruptible access to orbit is critical to supporting both civilian and national security assets in space. If one launcher fails and is down for a few months, there needs to be another one to fill the void. Commercial crew is doing just that by midwifing the development of two competitive, commercially available space launch providers.
- It is the most reliable alternative. Astronauts currently access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station using Russian rockets. The Russian Proton has failed seven times in the past five years and the Soyuz has failed twice in the past two years. More troubling than the crumbling state of their aerospace industry are recent pronouncements from Russian government officials to end that country’s involvement in the International Space Station. Without Russian cooperation, America is unable to access the space station. A $100 billion American investment would be stranded, useless, in outer space. While we hope that our Russian colleagues will not take such a drastic step, it shows that they are becoming increasingly skeptical and unreliable partners in the ISS framework. America quickly needs another way to get its astronauts to the space station, and commercial crew is the only alternative currently under development.
- It’s cost-effective. Commercial crew uses a new type of a contracting method that shifts much of the development risk to the private sector. That, and having two firms competing for limited funds, lowers costs. Specifically, the American taxpayer will spend less than $5.6 billion to get two new launch vehicles under the commercial crew program. Compare that with conventional rocket programs like the new Space Launch System and the old space shuttle program. SLS will cost about $18 billion to develop and the space shuttle cost $43 billion (in 2011 dollars) to develop. Commercial crew represents a new way of doing business at NASA, one the taxpayer and Congress should embrace.
- It’s developing cutting-edge technology. Both Boeing and SpaceX will use late-model American-made rockets for their commercial crew vehicles. SpaceX in particular is very aggressive in developing cutting-edge launcher technology at multiple facilities throughout the United States. In fact, SpaceX hopes to use machinery developed in the commercial crew program to eventually send spacecraft to Mars. Commercial crew is leading to the development of a new rocket industry in the United States and, more importantly, appears to be inspiring young people to pursue careers in aerospace-related fields. Rather than subsidize the Russian ballistic missile industry or waste taxpayer money on pork-barrel space projects, we should embrace commercial crew because it is helping to develop the technology and the workforce needed to ensure American dominance on the high frontier.
Yes, space is hard. No matter what policy we pursue, there are bound to be failures when we launch rockets into space. However, within that reality, we can choose a path that makes the best and highest use of our shared resources.
Commercial crew is still the best hope the United States has for ensuring uninterruptible and reliable access to low Earth orbit. It will save the American taxpayer money and will continue to expand homegrown innovation and technology development.
Commercial crew, despite recent setbacks and a lack of congressional funding, deserves our continued and full-fledged support.
Tom Marotta is a long-time member of the National Space Society, a veteran of March Storm lobbying efforts and the founding editor of “This Orbital Life.” His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.