A few weeks back, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, on the Space Coast in Florida, more than a million pounds of thrust sent two US astronauts to the International Space Station. With splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico a little after midnight on Sunday in India, the curtains have come down on what is much more than just another successful technology demonstration experiment in NASA and SpaceX’s history.
This was the first launch and landing of American astronauts from American soil after nine years. The destruction of space shuttle Columbia in 2003 caused NASA to retire the space shuttle in 2011. Since then, NASA did not have its own ride to the International Space Station for nine long years — and were wholly dependent on the Russians to get US astronauts there.
As the legend goes, Dmitry Rogozin, who was Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had once mockingly suggested on Twitter that the United States should try sending astronauts on a trampoline — implying the pathetic state of NASA’s infrastructure in human spaceflight then. Rogozin is now the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
In the meanwhile, NASA tried out an interesting strategy: instead of giving a contract to one company to develop a replacement to the shuttle, NASA funded four private companies to develop the capability. Unlike the space shuttle of the past, the four private companies would own all the hardware (and the IP), and NASA would buy services from them. Out of the four companies that were selected initially, two — SpaceX and Boeing — eventually received the full funding for developing an American ride to space.
Dr Amitabha Ghosh is a NASA Planetary Scientist based in Washington DC. He has worked for multiple NASA Mars Missions, and served as Chair of the Science Operations Working Group for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.
This successful technology demonstration has long term ramifications and will likely change the course of space exploration.
First, NASA will now have two — and not just one — choices to ferry astronauts and supplies to the Space Station. This is great from a risk mitigation perspective, as well as other considerations like cost.
SpaceX has cleared DEMO-2 for nominal flights back and forth to the Space Station. The next flight for the Crew Dragon will likely be in Spring 2021. Boeing’s Starliner unfortunately could not clear DEMO-1, or demonstrating the spacecraft without astronauts, in December 2019. Boeing will likely try DEMO-1 again in the coming months and, if successful, will try DEMO-2 next year. It will hopefully be available for nominal flights to the Space Station afterwards.
Second, the development has resulted in a better, and state-of-the-art product, in part due to competition between the two private players. The Crew Dragon, for example, has touch screen controls for the astronauts, and autonomous docking capability. Just as Elon Musk has reimagined the driving experience with Tesla, he has outfitted the Crew Dragon with the latest in technology.
Third, unlike the shuttle, the astronauts could safely eject and land, if something went wrong. During the Challenger disaster, a malfunction in the fuel tanks caused the death of all astronauts on board. If such a malfunction happened during the Crew Dragon’s launch, the Dragon Capsule could safely detach itself from the Falcon-9 vehicle and land back on Earth with the astronauts.
Fourth, and most significantly, the cost is probably significantly lower: there can be some debate about how much, but perhaps the savings may be as much as 1/10th of the cost. Humankind’s aspirations in space, particularly in exploring the Solar System, are restricted by cost, not by technology.
— NASA (@NASA) August 1, 2020
Fifth, this sets up the architecture for space agencies to viably travel to Mars. Hence, out of the technology heritage of Falcon-9, SpaceX is building the next generation launch vehicle, Starship. Starship will likely transport humans to the Moon and Mars in the next 5-10 years.
Sixth, this is perhaps a step in the direction of commercial space travel, the harbinger of an age in which the common man can aspire to travel in space. In order to make a specific technology ready for the mass market, costs need to come down and reliability needs to go up. Falcon-9 has reduced the cost of launch perhaps as much as 80%. Starship might reduce the cost of going to Mars by perhaps 99%.
Seventh, this will perhaps change how NASA might do some of its business in future. What was so interesting about NASA’s approach (called the Commercial Crew Program), was that it was not per se a technical innovation of the kind that NASA is famous for; rather it was a business model innovation or an innovation in government contracting.
In the past, the US government did not develop its own hardware in-house, but paid a private entity to develop its launch vehicle. The private entity charged the government for developmental costs and then charged a percentage profit. There was no incentive for the company to rein in costs. In the Commercial Crew Program, NASA helped pay a fixed price for the development of multiple hardware solutions, and then decided to buy services from them. The success of the Commercial Crew Program has ushered in a similar program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS. CLPS will provide funds to companies to develop a ride to the Moon, and NASA is just going to buy scientific data from them.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 1, 2020
Was there ever a repartee to the Russian Deputy Prime Minister’s comment about sending US astronauts to space using a trampoline?
Indeed, how could there not be one, in the age of Twitter? After the successful launch of the Crew Dragon, Elon Musk on May 30 famously said: “The Trampoline is working!”
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But can this acquisition model work in India? Can India perhaps fund two private companies to develop the technology and build fighter jets or passenger planes or and give them a few billion dollars over a decade?
I think it would be a worthwhile experiment. India’s startup ecosystem is starved for funds; Indian companies have the capability to generate world class technology. The key is to make the financial incentive worthwhile and transparent, so that large business groups feel that the technical risk/rewards profile is worthwhile. Also, the key is to allocate more than adequate capital for technology development to ensure that the cutting edge can be achieved.
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