For the United States, private space development is key to furthering space exploration and technology over the course of the next century. NASA is incentivizing private space flight development by setting goals for these companies while providing them with some funding and eventually awarding NASA contracts to the most successful ones. The U.S. incentive program is particularly focused on improving the private space industry's more powerful rocket systems, which would enable them to deliver heavier payloads into orbit and also make them safe enough to launch manned spacecraft. Ultimately, the United States hopes competition between these companies will substantially reduce the costs of spaceflight.
Several NASA programs are driving the push for private space development. The main initiative is the Commercial Orbital Transport Services program — aimed at providing supplemental financial support to companies, which are competing for NASA contracts, to deliver supplies and crew to the International Space Station. NASA already has awarded contracts to the two aforementioned companies for cargo resupply trips to the International Space Station and is currently providing funds to three companies — SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation — which are competing to provide manned space flights to the International Space Station.
On Sept. 17, 2013, Orbital Sciences Corporation launched its Cygnus resupply spacecraft on its Antares rocket to the International Space Station for the first time on a demonstration flight. While this was Orbital's first flight to the International Space Station, SpaceX completed two trips in the past year and had been expected to fly its third resupply mission in December or January. However, SpaceX's third trip has been delayed, making the Antares demonstration important because it may be called upon for a quick turnaround resupply mission instead.
Eventually these firms will pick up spaceflight contracts that are currently going to Russia, even if they are more expensive than using Russian rockets.
NASA's program for private manned flights to the International Space Station is intended to supplant Russia's Soyuz capsule as the preferred method for transporting NASA's astronauts to the space station. In addition, NASA is conducting a similar program for certifying private launch vehicles deemed safe enough to launch manned capsules (Russia's Soyuz-FG is currently the only launch vehicle NASA has certified). Those currently being considered are United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, which Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation's spacecraft would use, and SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1.
However, none of the three competitors for the manned missions to the International Space Station will be able to compete initially with the Soyuz in terms of cost; it will remain cheaper for NASA to buy seats from the Russians for the foreseeable future. But eventually these firms will pick up spaceflight contracts that are currently going to Russia, even if they are more expensive than using Russian rockets. The United States' strategy is not about just developing these private firms and then using them as NASA's personal fleet, but cultivating an industry that can eventually succeed in the future without NASA's aid to bring down the overall cost of space missions.
Reducing Lift Costs
The most important result of this strategy will be the added funding for developing private commercial space flight services — particularly for lifting heavier communications satellites into orbit or lifting multiple smaller ones. SpaceX's Falcon rockets, United Launch Alliance's Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy are powerful rockets that can deliver heavy payloads into orbit, and NASA is hoping that the private space industry can eventually drive the costs down substantially, making the United States a low-cost commercial space launch provider in the future.
Launch vehicles can largely be broken down into several categories based on the mass of the payload they launch into low-earth orbit. Two launch vehicle classes — middle- and heavy-lift launch vehicles — are particularly valuable because there are few of these types currently operational and also because they can deliver larger payloads to various orbits. In addition, these classes have more strategic military importance because military satellites often serve a wider range of roles than commercial satellites, requiring more equipment onboard and making them larger and heavier. Many also go into orbits significantly beyond low-earth orbit. Medium-lift launch vehicles can also launch some of these satellites into low-earth orbit, but in the case of Russia, Japan, the European Union and the United States, they also service manned and unmanned flights to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's Falcon rockets may be the most ambitious. All of SpaceX's missions thus far have been with the Falcon 9, which used weaker rocket engines than the ones currently under development. The upgraded version, the Falcon 9 v1.1, will use newly designed rocket engines that provide more thrust, allowing for the launch of larger payloads. The engines, the Merlin 1D, ran into problems during testing earlier this year that delayed the first launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1. The engines were finally successfully tested in July, and now SpaceX is set to launch the rocket for its first flight on Sept. 15. While the SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1 has the hopes of eventually delivering astronauts to the International Space Station, the real prize is developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle, which helps the company reduce lift costs.
The United States' strategy is about cultivating an industry that can succeed in the future without NASA's aid.
The Falcon 9 v1.1 itself is only able to deliver about 60 percent of what other, more powerful rockets can deliver into low-earth orbit. However, SpaceX will use a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket in tandem with two additional Falcon 9 v1.1 rockets flanking it as boosters to form the Falcon Heavy rocket, which will be powerful enough to deliver as large a payload to low-earth orbit as any rocket currently in service. This will make it the largest rocket of U.S. origin until NASA deploys the Space Launch System, a powerful rocket intended to send capsules beyond earth orbit that will surpass the Saturn V as the most powerful launch vehicle ever designed. The Falcon Heavy's first launch is planned for 2014, but a successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is a prerequisite for that, making the launch Sept. 15 important for SpaceX's plans.
In addition, SpaceX is designing a reusable first stage (the first stage is the bottom part of the rocket that falls away from the rest of the rocket after liftoff) of its Falcon rockets — SpaceX's Grasshopper rocket is testing the concept — as part of an effort to reduce lift costs. The private U.S. space industry in this area of space flight exists primarily because NASA contracts make it economically viable, not because it is profitable on its own. Lowering costs enough to render direct NASA or U.S. government assistance unnecessary will likely require significant innovation — the type that SpaceX is striving to meet — such as reusing parts of the rocket to bring down operating costs. Other tactics will be necessary to make the private space industry viable, including advanced space technology applications such as mining objects or constructing larger vehicles or space stations in orbit, but reducing lifting costs is a prerequisite for achieving those, and this is what NASA and the industry are focusing on.
This is the first installment of a two-part series on the evolution of the U.S. and Russian space industries.