Almost a century ago, the U.S. Postal Service set up its first airmail operation. It had its own pilots, planes and regular routes, transporting letters and parcels from coast to coast.
Once the public was accustomed to speedy national delivery, the U.S. government handed over airmail to the private sector. Commercial airlines, which were just getting off the ground, bid on contracts to carry the mail. The work guaranteed the fledgling firms an income long before the public was hooked on flying. These companies, which doubled as flying postmen, would eventually become giants of passenger aviation.
Now, U.S. President Barack Obama wants to transform human space flight in a similar fashion by letting private companies take American astronauts into orbit. And privatization of space could turn out to be the best way to open up the cosmos to a broader cross-section of humanity.
The opportunity for change will come this summer when the last of the aging fleet of space shuttles is retired from service. At that time, the United States will no longer have the means to get its astronauts to the International Space Station.
As a temporary measure, it will rent seats aboard Russia's Soyuz rockets at a recently negotiated price of $63-million (U.S.) per ticket. But the United States is in no rush to build new spacecraft of its own to free itself from Russian dependency. Instead, it is hoping that private industry will do that job.
Under Mr. Obama's direction, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has introduced financial incentives to entice companies to transport American astronauts into space, and both established and maverick aerospace companies are eager to get a piece of the action. There are already proposals for a half-dozen different designs, ranging from Boeing's CST-100 seven-person space capsule to Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser, which looks like a mini-shuttle.
The initiative, known as the commercial crew development program, or CCDev, may achieve what NASA could never do - bring down the sky-high cost of space flight.
And in so doing, it could finally make the heavens available to a lot more people - not just professional astronauts and a handful of hyper-rich space tourists.
"Our whole concept for this commercial crew program is that competition is good and the more competition you have, the better off you will be," said Edward Mango, director of NASA's space transportation planning office at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Space travel has been a government-run enterprise since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space 50 years ago this month. Only Russia, China and, at least for the next few months, the United States can put a human being into Earth orbit.
It's not simply faith in free-enterprise economics that is driving the Obama administration's space policy. It's also a matter of necessity. U.S. taxpayers and lawmakers are unwilling to finance NASA to the same extent that made it possible for America to land the first men on the moon in 1969.
As Mr. Mango explains it, if NASA spends its limited funds building a new rocket system just to get a few hundred miles above the Earth, "there won't be enough resources to do the exploration part."
In many respects, Mr. Obama's plan is an extension of an existing program to fund the private development of unmanned supply vessels to the space station once the shuttles retire. Some of the same companies with cargo contracts also want to carry passengers.
It's important to keep in mind that every single U.S. manned spaceship - from Mercury to the shuttles - has been essentially designed and built by private industry under contract for NASA.
What is changing is the ownership. Rather than NASA having its own fleet, it will rent seats on commercial spacecraft. But for that to happen, the companies will have to make a profit on transporting people to space, rather than on building the vehicles. So Washington is essentially padding the bottom line of the companies by helping to pay the up-front development costs of the new rocket systems.
The private sector can also take advantage of research that has already been carried out by NASA. Over the past five decades, the agency has done lots of work on various spacecraft designs. And some of those plans, which once sat on NASA's shelves, have been dusted off and incorporated into the new spacecraft proposals put forward by private industry.
Mr. Mango sees the parallels between the current situation and how the U.S. government nurtured the infant airline industry almost a century ago. Once companies are ferrying astronauts back and forth to the space station, they will be in a position to sell their services to others - and business could expand exponentially. But it will still take more than government handouts and borrowed technology to open up the skies. It will require real innovation to bring down the costs of reaching orbit. One company in particular - Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly known as SpaceX - is determined to revolutionize the business of space flight.
SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a South African-born Internet entrepreneur. By his mid-30s, he had already made $1.5-billion by selling PayPal to eBay. Seeking new challenges, he turned his attention to rocket science. Mr. Musk wants to create cheap, reusable rockets that will open up the heavens. (He is also the money behind Tesla, the pioneering electric sports car company.)
"The goal of SpaceX is to make the safest, most reliable and economical vehicle for transportation to low-Earth orbit," said Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who now works for Mr. Musk. It currently costs $5,000 to $10,000 to put one pound of payload into orbit. SpaceX has set a goal of launching a pound for just $1,000.
Even if only a few companies are initially successful in setting up ferry services to space, that could be enough to allow a vast expansion of human activities in Earth orbit.
Bigelow Aerospace, for instance, has ambitious plans to create a series of privately owned space stations based on inflatable habitat technology. Made of a flexible bulletproof material, the modules can be compressed into the nose cone of a rocket and then expanded to full size in orbit. NASA had originally conceived the idea of using inflatable structures as human habitats for long trips to Mars. But, in recent years, Bigelow has perfected the technology.
Once inflated, "they are extraordinarily rigid and solid," said Michael Gold, the company's director of business growth. "If you saw the prototypes, you would never know that these weren't metallic structures."
The Las Vegas-based company, founded by Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in real estate and the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has already put two small-scale prototypes, Genesis 1 and 2, into Earth orbit. They were launched on decommissioned Russian nuclear missiles. Now that the basic concept has been tested in space, the company says the only thing holding it back is the transportation system for its potential customers.
But when that system is in place, Bigelow could rapidly create a series of space stations that far exceed the capacity of the $100-billion international station, which has been under construction since 1998 by five space agencies representing 15 countries.
Of course, the scheme to privatize space flight is a not a sure thing. Industry will initially depend on the availability of U.S. government financial support - and that's vulnerable to changing political winds.
The Obama administration originally proposed spending $6-billion (U.S.) over five years to spur on the nascent industry. After numerous tugs of war with Congress, the amount has been scaled back to roughly $4.2-billion over six years. Less money will mean delays in getting private spaceships off the ground.
Still, if you're keen on the idea of space travel, the gamble might be worth it. Consider this fact: In the 50 years since Yuri Gagarin's historic first flight, only 500 people have followed his smoke trail to the heavens. Space travel probably won't become a common human experience until more than just a handful of governments control the access to orbit.
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