On May 30, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley made history when they were launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX’s Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon "Endeavour" spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on NASA’s second demonstration (Demo-2) mission marking the first time a crewed orbital spaceflight launched from the United States since the final Space Shuttle mission (STS-135).
Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission (branded as "Launch America" by NASA TV) is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking, and landing operations. The goal of the Demo-2 was to complete the validation of crewed spaceflight operations using SpaceX hardware and receive human-rating certification for the spacecraft, including astronaut testing of Crew Dragon capabilities on orbit. Astronauts Hurley and Behnken safely reached orbit and docked with the International Space Station on May 31 and worked alongside the crew of Expedition 63. During their 62 days aboard the ISS, both astronauts contributed more than 100 hours supporting the orbiting laboratory’s investigations, participated in public engagement events, conducted four spacewalks with fellow American astronaut Chris Cassidy to install new batteries in the station’s power grid and upgrade other station hardware. Crew Dragon Endeavour autonomously undocked from the station on August 1, 2020, and splashed down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, on August 2, 2020, returning the astronauts to Earth, in the first water landing by astronauts since 1975. These activities are a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to launch astronauts on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil the International Space Station for the first time since 2011. With this test flight, SpaceX returned human spaceflight to the United States, ending NASA`s dependency on Russia`s space agency Roscosmos` Soyuz capsules to deliver its astronauts to the ISS.
Aside from eliminating NASA`s dependence on Russia to send astronauts into orbit, another significant reason for the SpaceX launch was the cost. Over the past two decades, 85 flights have transported 239 astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on either a NASA Space Shuttle or a Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities (Roscosmos) Soyuz vehicle. However, following the Space Shuttle program`s retirement in 2011, NASA no longer had a spacecraft system capable of sending humans to space, and the Soyuz has served as the sole means of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS. Thus, NASA has launched its astronauts to the International Space Station on Russian spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the last nine years. According to the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report (November 14, 2019), as of July 2019, NASA had purchased 70 Soyuz seats worth $3.9 billion in total ($27.7 million in the first half of 2011, $43.4 million in the second half of 2011, $86 million in 2020) to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. As an alternative, NASA contracted with private companies such as SpaceX for the Commercial Crew Program, which is expected to cost less than Soyuz.
Commercial Crew Program (CCP)
Since the Mercury program in the early 1960s, NASA has used an almost identical operating model to achieve human spaceflight, including the Apollo rockets, Space Shuttle Program, and the American portions of the International Space Station. In the post-Shuttle era, NASA moved from its traditional approach of working with private aerospace companies to build launch vehicles that the government would own and fully control to a commercial program. Thus, in 2010, NASA`s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) was formed to facilitate the development of a commercial crew space transportation capability to achieve safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). With the new system, NASA pays private companies a fixed price to develop crew transportation options and provide crew transportation flights to the ISS as a service.
The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is a human spaceflight program operated by NASA, in association with American aerospace manufacturers Boeing and SpaceX. The program conducts rotations between the International Space Station expeditions, transporting crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules, in the first crewed orbital spaceflights operated by private companies. The program succeeds NASA`s involvement in the Soyuz program, upon which it was dependent on transporting its astronauts to the ISS following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. The program`s history goes back to the establishment of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which was announced by President George W. Bush in 2004 as a response to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and as a way to regain public enthusiasm for space exploration. The VSE sought to implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the Solar System and beyond, extend human presence across the Solar System, and return to the Moon by 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations. Following the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, the Constellation program was established, which envisioned crew rotation flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and lunar exploration goals. However, in 2009, the program`s funding and resources were deemed insufficient to execute its goals without significant delays to its schedule, and NASA started considering alternatives to the program. The Constellation program was officially canceled in 2010, with NASA collaborating with commercial partners for ISS crew rotation and other crewed activities in low Earth orbit following the Space Shuttle`s retirement in 2011.
Development of the Commercial Crew Program began in 2011 through a rescope of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. By investing in multiple American companies that are designing and developing transportation capabilities to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station, NASA aims to establish safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to space. To achieve its goals, NASA used Space Act Agreements to partner with domestic companies capable of contributing to the development of a U.S. human spaceflight capability. Throughout the process, NASA awarded more than $8.2 billion in Space Act Agreements (SAAs) and contracts under two Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) phases, the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, Certification Products Contract (CPC), and Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). As NASA retired the space shuttle, the private industry`s ability to take on the task of providing routine access to space was of vital importance. Before NASA would begin using a commercially developed system to transport its astronauts to and from the Space Station, the system must be certified as meeting NASA`s safety requirements throughout an entire mission cycle. NASA`s Commercial Crew Development Round 1 (CCDev1) began in 2010 using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.
During the CCDev1 phase, NASA awarded a total of $50 million to five companies to stimulate efforts within the private sector to aid in developing and demonstrating safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew transportation and capabilities. The second round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev2) kicked off in April of 2011 when NASA awarded nearly $270 million to four companies to further develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation capabilities. Winners of CCDev2 were Blue Origin (US$ 22 million), Boeing (US$ 92.3 million), SpaceX (US$ 75 million), and Sierra Nevada (US$ 80 million). NASA later funded an additional US$ 20.6 million to Boeing and US$ 25.6 million to Sierra Nevada Corporation by exercising optional, pre-negotiated milestones, which were part of their original Space Act Agreements, to accelerate development. In 2012, the agency extended its CCDev2 agreement with Blue Origin in an unfunded capacity. Through the agreement, the agency continued to support developing the company`s Space Vehicle and related systems. CCiCap continued the development of three fully integrated systems in August 2012.
The Space Act Agreements called for industry partners to develop crew transportation capabilities and to perform tests to verify, validate, and mature integrated designs. NASA later funded an additional US$ 20 million to Boeing, US$ 20 million to SpaceX, and US$15 million to Sierra Nevada Corporation by exercising optional, pre-negotiated milestones, which were part of their original Space Act Agreements, to accelerate development. On December 10, 2012, NASA announced the next step to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil. NASA selected three companies and awarded a total of nearly $30 million under the CPC contracts. Throughout CPC, the first phase of a two-phase contract, companies worked with NASA to achieve safe, crewed missions to the space station. It included data that will aid in developing engineering standards, tests, and analyses of crew transportation system designs. During the CPC phase, these American companies` advances also aimed to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station from the United States, ending the NASA`s dependency on Roscosmos` Soyuz program to deliver its astronauts to the ISS. The second phase of the certification contract, CCtCap, aimed to commercially built and operated integrated crew transportation systems. Two Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR-based), fixed-price contracts were awarded in September 2014 following an open competition. Through its certification efforts, NASA`s goal was to ensure the selected commercial transportation systems meet the agency`s safety and performance requirements for transporting NASA crew to the International Space Station. NASA awarded a total of $6.8 billion under CCtCap contracts (Boeing - $4.2 billion, SpaceX - $2.6 billion).
The Era of Accessible Private Spaceflight
Given Commercial Crew`s apparent success, NASA is also hoping to use this model for private spaceflights as well. In February 2020, Space Adventures, Inc., a Virginia-based space tourism company founded in 1998 by the American entrepreneur and aerospace engineer Eric C. Anderson, signed a deal with SpaceX, announcing its plans to fly private citizens into orbit on the Crew Dragon. Under the agreement, Space Adventures will use the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to fly up to four passengers to Earth orbit on a standalone mission aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft in late 2021 or 2022. The mission would not dock with the space station but would instead fly into an orbit that could reach an altitude two-to-three times higher than the International Space Station. Space Adventures offers various programs such as Orbital spaceflight missions to the International Space Station, Circumlunar missions around the Moon, zero gravity flights, cosmonaut training programs, spaceflight qualification programs, and reservations on future suborbital spacecraft. To date, Space Adventures has arranged eight orbital trips to the International Space Station for seven wealthy customers, businessman Dennis Tito in 2001, South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in 2002, American entrepreneurs Greg Olsen in 2005, Anousheh Ansari in 2006, Microsoft co-founder Charles Simonyi (twice) in 2007 and 2009, computer game developer Richard Garriott in 2008, and lastly Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte in 2009.
SpaceX`s Crew Dragon is also expected to be used to shuttle tourists to and from Axiom Space`s planned space station. SpaceX has signed a contract with Houston-based space startup, Axiom Space, to ferry four astronauts, including a commander professionally trained by Axiom alongside three private astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The mission, set to launch as soon as the second half of 2021, will allow the crew to live aboard the ISS and experience at least eight days of microgravity and views of Earth that can only be fully appreciated in the large, venerable station. The crew will be selected and trained by Axiom, with SpaceX providing the taxi service. Axiom Space, Inc. is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and orbital spaceflight services company headquartered in Houston, Texas. Founded in 2016 by the previous program manager for the International Space Station from 2005-2015, Michael T. Suffredini, the company plans commercial missions in late 2021 to the International Space Station (ISS) and aims to own and operate the world`s first commercial space station. The company`s leadership team is composed mainly of former NASA employees. As NASA shifts human spaceflight aspirations beyond low Earth orbit, Axiom`s goal is to create the commercial infrastructure necessary to push humanity forward in space. The company outlines broad commercial activities, including human spaceflight for national and private astronauts, in-space research and manufacturing, and space exploration support. In 2020, NASA awarded Axiom a $140 million contract on 28 February 2020, to provide at least one habitable commercial module to be attached to the ISS as the agency continues to open the station for commercial use. The module will connect to the space station`s Node 2 forward port to demonstrate its ability to provide products and services and begin the transition to a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy in which NASA is one of many customers. Next, NASA and Axiom will begin negotiations on the terms and price of a firm-fixed-price contract with a five-year base performance period and a two-year option.
Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of five elements of NASA`s plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. NASA`s five-point plan addresses both the supply-side and demand-side for a new economy, enabling the use of government resources for commercial activities, creating the opportunity for private astronaut missions to the space station, enabling commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit, identifying and pursuing activities that foster new and emerging markets, and quantifying NASA`s long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit. Through these combined efforts, NASA aims to meet its long-term needs in low-Earth orbit well beyond the International Space Station`s life. The agency’s ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at a lower cost. More than 50 companies are already conducting commercial research and development on the space station via the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. NASA has also worked with ten different companies to install more than 14 commercial facilities on the station that support research and development projects for NASA and the ISS National Lab. This effort is intended to broaden the scope of commercial activity on the space station beyond the ISS National Lab mandate, which is limited to research and development. NASA aims to enable commercial manufacturing and production and allow both NASA and private astronauts to conduct new commercial activities aboard the orbiting laboratory. Additionally, NASA plans to allow private astronaut missions of up to 30 days on the International Space Station. Considering the market demand, the agency intends to accommodate up to two short-duration private astronaut missions per year to the International Space Station. These missions will be privately funded, dedicated commercial spaceflights that will use a U.S. spacecraft developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
From a broader perspective, the industry implications of commercial space travel remain various and promising. Demand for space travel among those that can afford it may rise significantly as barriers to entry decline. Moreover, the development of new spacecraft will encourage growth within the manufacturing sector because of the vast supply chains in spacecraft manufacturing. For the space economy to take off, countries will also need to put regulations in place that ensure safety and reliability in many areas, including vehicle safety and debris mitigation. In the future of space tourism, the commercial space travel industry has unbounded potential. However, whether SpaceX or anybody else can offer orbital flight for humans at a price that can actually yield a profit, SpaceX’s crew launch brings humanity closer towards the viability of accessible commercial space travel.