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NASA’s Effort to Boost Commercial Spaceflight

“Fracture control” is an example of the agency’s human-rating requirements, Lueders said, specifying that launch vehicles taking crew to the ISS are constructed with “materials that don’t fatigue and if they fail, don’t fail in a catastrophic way.”

When the launch vehicles Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will use – the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – show compliance with the NASA human-rating standards, they are “certified” to lift their human payloads.

“We wanted to make sure the systems they had in place controlled the hazards that the vehicles expose the crew to,” Lueders explained.


The Commercial Launch Industry

Feng maintains that NASA’s efforts to enable commercial spaceflight have also boosted America’s commercial launch industry.

“If you look back 10 years, the fleet of U.S. launch vehicles was the shuttle, Delta, and Atlas [the latter two produced by ULA] in the U.S.,” Feng noted.

Boeing Starliner mockup and crew ISS web

A mock-up of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the astronauts assigned to the first two flights, from left to right: Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada, Eric Boe, Nicole Mann, and Christopher Ferguson. NASA photo by Robert Markowitz

Looking forward, he says NASA’s SLS – the heavy-lift rocket that will support NASA’s Orion human deep-space exploration vehicle – will be flying within several years. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are flying now, as are the Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems Antares 230 and ULA’s Atlas and Delta rocket fleet. ULA is also well into development for its Vulcan rocket. Blue Origin, another commercial spaceflight firm, is also entering the launch vehicle market with its New Shepherd and New Glenn reusable rockets.

“I think a lot of that is due to the spark that was supported by CRS and CCP,” Feng said. “Folks are trying to get to more capable, more reliable, less expensive, quicker turnaround rockets. SpaceX, by way of their overall pricing and cadence, has gone from zero to about 60 flights in eight years. The launch vehicle market will look different than it does today in four to five years.”


Orbital Spaceflight at the Speed of Commerce

Lueders says that Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to fly uncrewed demonstration missions with Starliner and Crew Dragon by the end of 2018. Demonstration missions to the ISS with crew aboard will begin early in 2019.

The speed at which the commercial spaceflight industry is developing is eye-opening. Between 2006 and 2019 – just 13 years – a commercial capability to fly cargo and crew to the ISS has been put on a rapid path to success. NASA has and will continue to play a major role in enabling private industry to make space accessible.

Along the way, the agency has gained as much as it has contributed, Lueders said, noting that its work with commercial spaceflight companies is a collaboration.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Earth return ISS web

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returns to Earth for the second time. The mission marked the first reflight of a Falcon 9, which had previously flown during the fourth Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-4) mission back in September 2014. SpaceX photo

“We come to the table and say, ‘This is kind of what we did for Space Shuttle and this is what we’ve been working with on the Orion side.’ But then they [SpaceX] come in and say, ‘This is what I learned on Cargo Dragon’ and the Boeing guys will say, ‘This is what we’ve learned and this is how we’re optimizing it.’ We all learn together and that’s the funnest part.”

As Feng stresses, one of NASA’s original intents was to “foster the economy of low-Earth orbit.”

Ultimately, it’s NASA’s goal that the spaceflight industry will be able to make a commercial success of providing services for and access to low-Earth orbit. Engaging commercial partners to provide resupply services for the ISS is a means of pioneering that success – the end game for NASA’s “tech transfer on steroids.”

“We’ll see what other kinds of missions our partners might do,” Lueders said. “We’re in the process right now of understanding how we use the space station commercially. We’re already working with both providers [SpaceX and Boeing] on other passengers or other missions they might propose. That could provide a platform for other commercial and research uses in low-Earth orbit.”

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...