Commercial spaceflight advocate outlines revolution in the field
Bruce Pittman of NASA’s Space Portal Office, a 35-year advocate for commercial spaceflight, outlined his vision of the endeavor over the next 42 months in a June webinar run by NASA’s Night Sky Network.
Titled “A Revolution in Commercial Space Development: The Next 42 Months,” Pittman’s talk began with a historic perspective starting with NASA’s retiring of the space shuttle in 2009.
The decision to end the shuttle program was actually made in 2004 and announced by then-President George W. Bush after construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed. It left the space agency in a difficult situation because the shuttle was used regularly to bring both astronauts and supplies to the space station.
Early Stages of Public-Private Partnership:
Pittman, the Director of Commercial Space Development at OffWorld Inc., is currently working as a contractor in the Space Portal Office. Emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not for NASA in an official capacity, he referenced how he had joined NASA’s newly-formed Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which was allocated $500 million over a five-year period to to develop partnerships with commercial companies for the transportation of supplies and eventually astronauts to the ISS.
“Partnering with private industry shifts some risk and funding government takes to private companies but gives private companies more flexibility,” he said.
The program’s first contracts were awarded to SpaceX and the Orbital Sciences Corporation. SpaceX is the launch provider which has developed the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon supply capsule while Orbital Sciences Corporation, now part of Northrop Grumman, is the firm which produced the Antares rocket and Cygnus vehicle.
Falcon 9 made its first flight in 2010 and its first docking at the ISS two years later. Since then, it has doubled its initial performance. But its most notable feature is its reusability.
The space shuttle never flew more than nine times a year, mostly because refurbishing it and readying it for new flights took a long time. By introducing reusability, SpaceX has made frequent launches a reality.
In terms of the capsule, the Dragon returns to Earth by landing in the ocean, where a ship carries it back to land. In contrast, Cygnus can transport just one load of supplies to the ISS because it burns up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
To date, SpaceX has conducted 20 cargo flights to the space station while Antares and Cygnus delivered 14.
“SpaceX has been driving innovation in the aerospace industry,” Pittman stated, noting that both they and Boeing contracted with NASA in 2014 to carry astronauts to and from the ISS. In May of this year, SpaceX famously conducted the first launch of American astronauts from American soil using American rockets in nine years via the Crew Dragon.
Boeing conducted an un-crewed test of its Starliner, also designed to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, but experienced some problems during that test. The company will likely launch its first crewed flight next year, Pittman said.
“This opens a new era of commercial space development and private access to space,” he emphasized.
The US has been paying Russia $81 million per seat per launch to send American astronauts to the ISS over the last nine years, he noted.
Benefits of Using Private Companies:
In contrast to NASA, private companies can own and operate their own systems. The government’s role is simply that of a client. Commercial spaceflight will allow private companies to fly astronauts, including space tourists, completely independent of NASA. Bigelow Aerospace (who in March 2020 laid off its entire workforce) currently has one of its expandable modules on the space station, and Axiom Space negotiated the right to dock its own module there in 2024.
Actor Tom Cruise plans to ride with Axiom to the space station, where he hopes to film a movie.
Private companies are also launching their own satellites. SpaceX also leads in that area, having launched the Starlink system, a series of low-Earth orbit communications satellites that provide broadband Internet to all locations on Earth. These satellites, which fly below the ISS, will have laser interconnects that will enable them to communicate with one another.
“The market for this could be in the $20-$30 billion dollar range, especially for undeveloped areas,” Pittman emphasized.
Planet, a private company that images the Earth every day to facilitate global change, launched approximately 250 extremely small satellites and three higher-resolution satellites, all of which take detailed pictures of every part of Earth’s solid surface every day. By this fall, 21 of the latter group will be in orbit. This technology makes it possible to closely observe crucial developments, such as deforestation in the Amazon.
Commercial spaceflight is also making it easier for non-NASA individuals to access the ISS. The US portion of the space station has been made into a national science laboratory operated but not owned by NASA, Pittman said. Science experiments now being conducted include research in the life sciences, fiber optics, and 3D printing. The latter marks the start of manufacturing items in space.
Two 3D printers currently on the ISS are printing beating heart tissue from human stem cells in microgravity. Eventually, scientists will be able to print kidneys, lungs, and livers as well. “In space, you can print whatever shape that you want, and it will stay where you put it.”
Beyond the ISS, commercial spaceflight is also facilitating the development of robots, tethers, and a mission extension vehicle that can extend the life of satellites.
Pittman foresees launch vehicles having “point to point suborbital capability,” meaning they will be able to launch from offshore platforms and travel long distances, such as going from London to Sidney in 51 minutes. This will be used only for cargo until until flight safety for people is demonstrated, which he expects to occur by the end of the decade.
The Moon and Mars:
Private companies are facilitating a new era in lunar exploration as well. NASA has two programs in this area. One, the Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) program, calls for robotic return to the Moon. This includes private landers, a water exploration rover, and various other robotic payloads.
The other program is aimed at landing humans on the Moon. NASA has allocated nearly$1 billion to three companies–Dynetics, SpaceX, and Blue Origin–to design vehicles capable of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024.
For the more distant future, Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin have much bigger plans. Musk wants to build a city on Mars, for which SpaceX is developing the Starship, which will be capable of carrying 100 people to the Red Planet. Bezos envisions millions of people living in space and rezoning the Earth for solely residential and light industrial activity.
Commercial spaceflight will be a subject of discussion at the National Space Society‘s (NSS) Day in Space virtual event, scheduled for July 16, Pittman said. Registration is now open for this free event.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.