Two recent developments in the commercial space sector illustrate how private companies are partnering with NASA to fund their operations, develop profit-making space hardware, and provide the space agency with needed services.
SpaceX to fly people in space by 2015
According to the Orlando Sentinel, SpaceX, one of the companies involved in NASA's commercial crew program, plans to fly the first crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft sometime in 2015. There is no word on who would be on the first commercial flight to low Earth orbit, except that they would be SpaceX employees and not NASA astronauts. The test flight is envisioned to lead to routine operations in 2017 in which the SpaceX Dragon would take crews to and from the International Space Station. Boeing, which is developing its own crewed spaceship, the CST-100, is planning its own test flight sometime in 2016.
Bigelow to provide an inflatable module for the International Space Station
Space.com reports that Bigelow Aerospace has signed an agreement with NASA to provide one of its inflatable space modules for the International Space Station. The module will be used as a storage area and not, apparently, as a way to increase the crew size of the ISS. NASA and Bigelow will have the opportunity to observe in real time how an inflatable module behaves in space over the long term. The contract is for $17.8 million. Ironically, Bigelow's inflatable space module technology is based on TransHab, a concept developed by NASA to add inflatable modules to the ISS, only to see funding cut for it by Congress.
The bottom line in commercial space and its relationship to NASA
Both Bigelow and SpaceX aspire to be true commercial space companies, providing services for private customers. Bigelow has plans for a private space station, built from its inflatable modules, to be rented out to private customers. The company has launched a number of inflatable modules on test flights in low Earth orbit. Thus far, however, Bigelow has been stymied by a lack of means to take people and cargo to and from its commercial space station commercially.
SpaceX is developing a full-service space launch company, having contracts to launch satellites from a number of customers, including the United States military. It has already run cargo flights to the International Space Station under contract with NASA. Thus far the manned version of its Dragon is dependent on NASA subsidies and contracts from the space agency to service the ISS. If SpaceX and/or Boeing can get their crewed spacecraft operational, Bigelow's dream of a commercial space station would come another step toward feasibility, perhaps freeing commercial space from dependency on government money.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.