NASA announced this week that it has come up with proposals from a dozen private space companies to build private low-earth orbit space stations, which it says will save the agency in the long run 1 to $ 1.5 billion a year and will allow him to focus more on the depths. space exploration.
The news also comes as NASA announced it was restructuring its leadership of the human exploration and operations mission into two new directorates within the agency. The first, called Exploration Systems Development (ESD), will be led by former NASA associate administrator Jim Free.
Kathy Lueders, currently the head of the Human Operations and Exploration Missions Directorate, will lead a second new directorate, known as Space Operations (SO), which will take over responsibility for missions and systems. that are successfully emerging from ESD, including new commercially developed spaces. stations, orbital flights and missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
News of the transition to private space stations, courtesy of CNBC, comes as recent reports highlight how the International Space Station (ISS) has aged. Shallow cracks propagated along the surface of at least one of its modules, the station suffered a disruptive anomaly from a failed thruster on a docked Russian module, and air pressure drops were reported in the life section of the station’s crew, indicating a potential air leak.
The station has been continuously occupied since 2000, and 21 years is a long time to be exposed to the ravages of the vacuum of space. The ISS is expected to continue operating until 2024, with the option of extending its mission until 2028, but with the Russian Federation indicating that it will not stay beyond 2024, the ISS is naturally coming to the end of his service.
The ISS costs NASA around $ 4 billion a year to operate, which is a substantial sum given that it has its eyes on the Artemis lunar mission, which is expected to return humans to the moon as early as 2025.
NASA’s restructuring is also no surprise given its renewed focus beyond Earth orbit. In a town hall with NASA staff announcing the split between the two directions, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said that whatever NASA’s plans, the Artemis mission must come before anything else.
“It’s our goal, it’s our responsibility,” said Nelson. “There are so many new technologies that need to be developed for the Moon and Mars, as well as to cultivate the international partnerships that are going to be with us.”
Nelson also stressed that this should not be seen as a demotion or sidelining of Lueder, who has guided NASA’s hugely successful partnership with private companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) through the Commercial Crew program. from NASA in recent years.
Instead, it’s a recognition that as the scope of NASA’s ambitions increases, the structure of the agency must evolve with it. Nelson said the responsibilities of managing orbital flights, a space station and now the Artemis mission “are just getting too big. One person can’t do it all.”
The main focus of the ESD leadership now will be to develop the kind of technology NASA will need to safely send astronauts, including the first woman and the first person of color, to the moon and bring them back to Earth in full safety, including the construction of a space station gateway orbiting the moon which will help facilitate the construction of a permanent settlement of its surface.
SpaceX lets NASA aim higher and further
There’s no denying that none of this would happen without SpaceX. Several large private space companies are currently operating and partnering with NASA to ferry supplies to the ISS and deliver payloads to orbit, but nearly all are being restructured or joint ventures between companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing.
They are all legacy military and aerospace contractors who have worked with the US government since the 1960s and have enjoyed a steady stream of lucrative contracts for decades, but whose inevitable bloat is starting to show.
Boeing and SpaceX have both secured contracts for a crew capsule that transports astronauts to the ISS from American soil, saving NASA from having to count and pay for the passage of the Russian Soyuz rocket. The race to see which company could send its crew capsule to space first, docked to the ISS using an unmanned capsule, and ultimately send astronauts to the ISS should have been tight, but that turned out not to be the case.
Boeing suffered a disheartening setback when its Starliner crew capsule encountered a thruster anomaly during its unmanned mission in December 2019 where it failed to dock with the ISS. Since that mission, Boeing has been unable to return the Starliner to space, with another launch failure occurring on the launch pad in early August when an “unexpected valve position” returned the Starliner. in its hangar and wiped out any hope of another launch attempt before 2022.
Meanwhile, not only has SpaceX been transporting cargo to the ISS for years and safely delivered 10 astronauts to the station, but last week’s successful Inspiration4 mission was entirely made up of civilians and operated entirely by SpaceX, the all without the participation of NASA.
That NASA makes these announcements and changes now might be a coincidence, but SpaceX crossed the threshold of successfully commercializing LEO without government help last week is testament to its engineering sophistication and driving experience. space operations, and is an important signal that commercial space operations have reached a level of maturity that frees NASA from everyone’s hands.
However, not everyone is happy with these developments.
One of the main stories of this modern era of spaceflight is that SpaceX is the prototypical tech company while differentiating itself for exactly the same reason. The tech industry is generally too enthusiastic about ‘disrupting’ industries that it sees as calcified and inefficient, while in most cases a company’s success is more about hype, labor arbitrage and smart tax tricks, not to mention the non-existent regulation of its worst (and most profitable) practices.
Elon Musk can be a divisive figure for a lot of people, myself included, I don’t even get started on the Tesla Bot, but it’s just plain undeniable that Musk and SpaceX have completely circled around a military complex- American industrialist who spent decades milking The US government contracts without showing significant returns on those investments in the post-Apollo era.
SpaceX has systematically outbid companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and others who are not used to having to bid low to get a contract, and it’s starting to seriously reduce the bottom line for those companies.
Much of the coverage around Jess Bezos and Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA for awarding the Artemis moon lander to SpaceX is understandably focused on Jeff Bezos, but Blue Origin hasn’t even put anything down yet. either in orbit, much less demonstrate that it can land on the moon.
To strengthen its offering, Blue Origin has partnered with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to demonstrate that they have the technical capacity to make its proposal a reality. Assuming that NASA would award two bids and SpaceX would likely get one, Blue Origin submitted an offer of nearly $ 6 billion to SpaceX’s 2.9 billion.
It’s no wonder, then, that SpaceX continues to win contract after contract as historical players like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin continue to find themselves in the cold. But if those billions of dollars NASA saved from SpaceX brings Artemis closer to arriving on the moon, then luckily the system works as everyone tells us.
- Boeing’s Starliner successfully docks at the International Space Station for the first time
- Boeing successfully launches Starliner spacecraft to orbit in do-over test flight
- Blue Origin loses legal fight over SpaceX contract with NASA on the Moon
- SpaceX poised to send first private crew to the International Space Station for Axiom Space
- NASA reshuffles astronaut crew assignments amid ongoing Boeing delays