What will NASA’s $6.8 billion space taxi contracts really buy?

The Boeing Company and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will soon be ferrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The private contractors will lend the space agency much more than a lift.

Astronaut Randy Bresnik prepares to enter The Boeing Company's CST-100 spacecraft for a fit check evaluation at the company's Houston Product Support Center, image undated. On Tuesday, NASA awarded Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp with contracts to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA’s $6.8 billion deal with SpaceX and Boeing buys the US space agency a lot more than a few taxi rides to the International Space Station. From new independence from the Russian space program to the drive of competitive innovation, the private contracts promise to open new doors for US space exploration.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden announced Tuesday that the space agency will contract with two private agencies to transport US astronaut crews to the International Space Station. The contract with the Houston-based Boeing Company is valued at $4.2 billion. California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., more commonly known as SpaceX, has been awarded a $2.6 billion contract. Under the contracts, each company will pilot between 2 and 6 ferrying missions.

NASA deactivated its own space shuttle in 2011 and has since relied on Russian vessels to transport US astronauts to the space station. Given mounting tensions between the two nations, Congress has been keen to minimize such reliance on the Russians.

The removal of NASA astronauts from the drivers' seats drew some criticism from some astrophysicists who expressed concerns that the move was the first step in a more systematic defunding of the US space program.

However, noted astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. sees the shift as a worthy reallocation of limited resources.

“It makes sense to me that NASA’s role should be at the frontier. Trucking astronauts and their food and supplies and so on is no longer the frontier,” Dr. McDowell tells the Monitor. “NASA astronauts shouldn’t be truck drivers. That’s not what they’re for. They’re for being the first people on Mars, or on an asteroid.”

Outsourcing NASA’s short-range transportation needs to private industry could also lead to innovations that ultimately reduce shuttle costs, McDowell says. Already, SpaceX has hinted that it will charge just a fraction of the $71 million per seat ticket price offered by the Russians.

NASA operates firmly under the thumbs of Congress and other federal regulatory bodies and can be bogged down by the same managerial redundancies and cumulative regulations that plague other government agencies.

“Within the government, the drive to prevent anyone from doing anything wrong also stops people from having the flexibility to do what they need to do to get things right,” McDowell says.

SpaceX and Boeing will certainly be subject to government regulations regarding safety and control of space debris. However as private companies, they enjoy more latitude in how they explore and implement technologies than NASA has, he explains.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is the more adventurous of the two designs – and therefore the most risky investment. Boeing’s CST-100 design more closely resembles previous shuttles and the company has had a relationship with NASA for decades, making it the safer bet.

Between the two approaches, “we’ll really get to fly out that old space-new space dichotomy over the next few years and see which one really works better in practice,” McDowell says.

Having multiple options also provides some level of insurance in case one shuttle encounters technical difficulties and needs to be taken off line. 

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