NASA’s New Big Winners

3 minute read

Remember the guy you didn’t like in high school but had to be nice to because he had a car and he gave you lifts? Welcome to U.S.-Russia relations in space. Since 2011, when the last space shuttle stood down, American astronauts have had to hitch rides aboard the Russian Soyuz to get to the International Space Station (ISS)–which, by the way, we built. At $70 million per seat, the ticket price has not exactly been coach fare. But the U.S. is about to get its own ride. On Sept. 16, NASA announced the winners of a years-long competition among domestic companies vying to build the next line of vehicles that will carry Americans into space.

Who’s In, Who’s Out

The firms that got the golden tickets were Boeing and the upstart SpaceX, headed by industrial phenom Elon Musk. Boeing is an industry stalwart and was a prime contractor on the ISS. Musk is an industry wunderkind who has already launched unmanned cargo runs to the ISS under a contract it shares with Virginia-based Orbital Sciences.

The big loser of the day was Sierra Nevada, which made it to the medal round but missed the podium, perhaps due to the design of its ship, which would have had wings and re-entered the atmosphere like the space shuttles. That model, as tragic history showed, had problems.

The New Ships

Both Boeing and SpaceX are going back to the future with their designs, building something of a souped-up Apollo spacecraft with room for up to seven astronauts. The Boeing vehicle, known as the CST-100, will launch atop the existing Atlas V booster. Musk’s snazzier-sounding Dragon 2 capsule will reach orbit aboard his company’s Falcon 9 booster. An earlier Dragon model has been used for unmanned cargo runs, making such an impression on space-station astronauts that one even complimented its “new-car smell.”

No Sticker Shock

NASA is being relatively frugal with the deal it struck. The total value of the two-company contract is $6.8 billion, with Boeing and SpaceX promised at least two development flights each, and up to six each if their designs prove themselves; full payout is contingent on success. The overall price is not much different from what 12 shuttle flights would cost, but competition and economies of scale could eventually bring the cost down.

None of this means that the new crews should be clambering into their space suits just yet. NASA projections call for launches to begin in 2017, but NASA projections are notorious for slipping. Still, a lot of metal and a lot of checks have been cut for the new spacecraft, and the smart money says an American space resurgence is coming–and it’s coming soon.

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