The Final Touchdown
By James Grahame
This morning's landing of Atlantis, the last shuttle, caused me to get a bit misty-eyed. It also felt a bit like saying goodbye to the family's rusty old Chevrolet Impala station wagon. She served us faithfully, but it's time to move on.
The Space Transportation System was envisioned as an affordable, reusable launch vehicle for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) operation. NASA estimated that the shuttle would cost about $41 billion dollars (2011 dollars, adjusted for inflation) to design, and an additional $54 million dollars per flight. It didn't quite work out that way. By the time the exhaust plumes had settled, $196 billion had been invested in the STS program -- more than $1.45 billion per launch.
I listened to several brief news clips throughout the day as a flock of confused reporters lamented the loss of the shuttle and the end of America's manned space program. It was emotional, moving and entirely unnecessary because the American space industry is entering a new golden age. It promises to be a hell of a lot cheaper, safer and more interesting than the ghastly tedium of the shuttle's LEO resupply trips.
While it's true that NASA's expensive and risky Constellation heavy lifter program has been shelved, a squadron of eager young space technology companies are beginning to attract attention around the world. Young whippersnappers such as Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) are bringing the mindset of low-cost software startup companies to the space industry, with impressive early results.
In 2006, NASA awarded SpaceX a $278 million contract to develop the Falcon 9 rocket. Several successful years later, the relationship was extended with the announcement of a $1.6 billion agreement to provide 12 supply missions to the ISS.
If SpaceX can pull things off on budget and on schedule, it'll work out to a total cost of $1.878 billion -- about $157 million per launch. Of course, the Falcon 9 can only lift about 40% of the shuttle's payload into low earth orbit and a few years more extremely hard work will be required before SpaceX's Dragon capsule is cleared to transport a live crew.
Even with its current limitations, the cost of resupplying the ISS using the SpaceX launch system is about 1/4 that of the shuttle. The company is already working on the Falcon Heavy launch system, which will offer over four times the Falcon 9's LEO payload capability.
Perhaps more important: The Falcon Heavy will be capable of hefting a sizeable cargo into a geostationary transfer orbit or translunar trajectory, should that be deemed politically desirable. The first launch should take place under three years from now -- a mere blink of an eye by the timelines of the commercial space industry.
SpaceX isn't the only startup eager to usher in an era of more affordable and adaptable space travel. Companies such as Orbital Sciences, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin (funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) and even old-guard heavyweights such as Boeing & Lockheed Martin (United Launch Alliance) are battling for their slice of the pie.
I can hardly wait to see what lies ahead. One thing's for sure -- the American space program is only just reaching the launchpad. To infinity and beyond!