Photo: Courtesy of NASA.
Excellent news for space fans and, really, anyone who calls Earth home: NASA has chosen its partner for private space flight — its first foray into human space travel since the end of the space shuttle program.
Today, NASA announced that it will fund $6.8 billion in contracts (distributed between Boeing and SpaceX) to build space crafts that will send our astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017. Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, says these contracts will "transform America's premiere launch site into a space port like no other."
Boeing is the conservative, safe choice, according to astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Jonathan McDowell, PhD. Boeing's CST-100 capsule entry is a descendent of designs seen in the Apollo and Gemini missions, and continues that trusted lineage. The other entries included SpaceX's winning Dragon Version 2 and the adorably-named Dream Chaser space plane from newcomers Sierra Nevada.
Since the conclusion in 2011 of the space-shuttle program, NASA has partnered with private companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX to beef up its space-travel initiatives and keep the station supplied with necessary lab and living equipment. Still, U.S. astronauts have had to rely on the Russian Soyuz spaceships to get to the orbiting International Space Station. Now, NASA plans to make human space travel as much an American endeavor as cargo space travel.
"We’re living through a time of change in the space industry," says Dr. McDowell. Although taxpayers will be paying for these commercial crew and cargo initiatives, NASA has changed the way the program contracts are distributed. Dr. McDowell says this has forced NASA to shift its priorities, which "has loosened up the system in a healthy way."
And, while this won't directly lead to ultra-cheap and convenient space taxis for all, it might help bring down the general cost of space travel. Eventually, Dr. McDowell explains, this could mean an orbital trip at the price of a Virgin Galactic suborbital trip — a marked change from the current 30- to 40-fold increase in fuel (and therefore, cost) necessary for an orbital trip.
We're still hoping that one day, we'll be easily ferried from our planet to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Middle-school space camp totally counts as astronaut training, right?