Commercial Human Spaceflight Making Strides

Commercial Human Spaceflight Making Strides

Commercial human spaceflight, often called space tourism, is making more strides with help from NASA.  The agency has announced plans to fly its own astronauts and other personnel on commercial suborbital space missions launched by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.  At the same time, Virgin Galactic signed a deal with the agency to train tourists who want to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) and make arrangements for the trip.

NASA’s embrace of public-private partnerships for human spaceflight began in the Obama Administration and is blossoming in the Trump Administration.  NASA wants to be just one of many customers of systems built by the private sector, from transportation to and from the ISS, to future Earth-orbiting space stations, to landing on the Moon.

Now the agency wants to add trips closer to home — suborbital flights just over the imaginary line between air and space and back to the ground — using systems being built by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

Both have been developing their systems for many years: Branson’s SpaceShipTwo and Bezos’s New Shepard.  No people have flown on New Shepard yet.  SpaceShipTwo has taken Virgin Galactic employees over the line, but not paying customers.

Today, NASA released a Request for Information (RFI) to industry for ideas on how NASA could qualify commercial suborbital systems for NASA astronauts and other NASA personnel, and eventual purchase of such services to support astronaut training, testing and qualification of spaceflight hardware, and human-tended microgravity research. NASA may purchase a single seat, multiple seats, or charter an entire mission. Responses are due by August 7.

The RFI is open to all, but Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic tweeted their delight at the news on Friday after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine previewed the announcement.

Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) President Eric Stallmer praised the announcement, noting that commercial spaceflight companies have been working with NASA through its Flight Opportunities program and the RFI is “another opportunity to expand that leadership.”

On top of that, Virgin  Galactic announced a separate agreement with NASA yesterday where it will train space tourists (also called private astronauts or spaceflight participants) who plan to visit ISS and arrange their transportation.

NASA was a reluctant convert to the idea of sending anyone other than professionally trained astronauts to the ISS.  Russia has been doing it since 2001, but it was only last year that NASA released a package of policy changes to further the commercialization of low Earth orbit, including a pricing policy for how much NASA will charge for a space tourist to spend a night on the U.S.-controlled segment of ISS.

The price does not include transportation to and from the ISS.  Those services must be purchased separately from commercial providers.

SpaceX and Boeing are the two U.S. companies developing crew space transportation systems, through public-private partnerships with NASA, that can do the job.  That is the commercial crew program, which began in 2010 under the Obama Administration and is just at the test flight stage now.

SpaceX’s crewed test flight for NASA, Demo-2, is underway at this very moment, but the company also has non-NASA deals to fly tourists.  One is with Axiom to take a crew of four to ISS.  Axiom has its own public-private partnership with NASA to build a module that will initially attach to the ISS, but eventually become a free-flying commercial space station.  The other deal is with Space Adventures to take four passengers simply to orbit, not to dock with the ISS.

Space Adventures has been the broker for space tourist flights to ISS on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.  Virgin Galactic’s announcement yesterday indicates it will be competing for that ISS space tourism business.

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