Last Sunday, the private aerospace company SpaceX launched the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This launch, carried out by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, is part of a $1.6 billion contract signed with NASA in 2006 to carry out at least 12 such missions. The unmanned launch carried needed supplies and experiments to the astronauts in orbit.
NASA absorbed a giant risk in “buying tickets” into orbit with private companies such as SpaceX, but the early signs have been promising. First, the successful launch has demonstrated that SpaceX has overcome the massive hurdles in acquiring the necessary technological and human capital to carry out such a complex mission for a client. Nor is SpaceX an outlier–Orbital Sciences Corporation is also scheduled to roll out their Antares rocket to carry out resupply missions early next year. Second, it makes perfect sense that the long-term stability of space enterprise be in the hands of the private sector, if one considers the constant shifting of NASA’s priorities under the previous two administrations. Third, and perhaps most importantly, SpaceX has managed to deliver its services affordably. A single space shuttle mission cost $450 million dollars, at an average cost of over $18,000 per kilogram. The sticker price of a Falcon 9 launch is $54 million, or approximately $4,250 per kilogram. This $54 million figure is comparable to the cost of delivering just one astronaut to the ISS using Russian Soyuz rockets. NASA had previously relied on the Russian Space Agency to buy “tickets” for its astronauts and supplies to the ISS. This is because the retirement of the space shuttle and the cancellation of the Constellation program’s line of rockets left the agency bereft of a suitable launch vehicle. The return of American investment to companies in the United States such as SpaceX is promising.
The transfer of some of NASA’s operations to the private sector should also encourage us regarding the potential industries that may emerge. While the private spaceflight industry remains in its infancy, some parallels can be drawn to the development of the airline industry in the 1920s and 30s. Many airline companies which would flourish and survive to this day emerged from the Air Mail Acts during that time, when the federal government commissioned private aircraft companies to carry mail for the U.S. Postal Service. This flood of investment improved airplane manufacture and design and helped give the companies enough capital to develop a national passenger airline service.
Barring some catastrophic setback, the private spaceflight industry will certainly develop into something more than providing rockets-for-hire to shuttle satellites and ISS supplies into orbit. When spaceflight companies reach sufficient economies of scale, a myriad of opportunities in space which have thus far been limited to a handful of public space agencies may be open to commercial enterprise. While the most well-known of these opportunities is space tourism, a number of rare minerals can be found on asteroids or the moon which will create new economic opportunities on Earth. The most promising of these is helium-3, which can be found in lunar soil in large quantities. Once processed from the regolith, it could provide a remarkably powerful, clean, and safe fuel for tomorrow’s nuclear fusion reactors. Investing in American space innovation will ensure that the American economy has an edge on these future markets.