The role of private enterprise in the space sector has risen exponentially in the 21st century, beyond many expectations. With companies on track to send their own astronauts into space by 2017, it seems critics can no longer denounce it as a fad or passing fancy.
Since the heady days of the Cold War and its resulton Space Race, national space agencies have fallen behind the efforts of the private sector. NASA funding as a percentage of the US federal budget gradually fell from a 1966 peak of 4.41%, to 0.5% in 2014. Seemingly as the propaganda value declined, so too did the funding.
Carrying the torch for space exploration, in which almost half a century has passed since man first landed on the moon, have been private companies. Corporations such as Elon Musk’s SpaceEx, Boeing, and Virgin, to name a few, have taken the helm.
It would be incorrect to suggest that they are doing this entirely alone. Many landmark explorations and achievements made by these corporations would have been possible without the cooperation of national space agencies such as NASA, Roscosmos, and the ESA – and the political authorities that fund and administrate them.
Therefore it comes as little surprise that the astronauts that SpaceX and Boeing seek to send into the cosmos in 2017 will be landing at the International Space Station (ISS) – and that the news was leaked by NASA itself.
SpaceX alone has been involved in several missions with NASA throughout its 14 year history, 7 of which where resupply missions to the ISS, carrying cargo for the space organisation. On its website, NASA refers to SpaceX as ‘NASA provider’.
SpaceX has not always been successful however, with a rocket launch failure in June of last year pouring doubt onto their capabilities. The next cargo mission, scheduled for 7 April, will be the company’s first since the failed launch last year.
Both companies are preparing to complete development of manned spacecrafts, known as – American astronaut taxis – as soon as possible. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule are to be brought up to grade by end of 2017, NASA hopes.
The development of manned spaceflights by private companies does not represent a supplanting of NASA and traditional government-run agencies. Rather this shows a shift from centrally-planned space sector, to one which thrives on a public-private partnership to reach shared goals.
Agencies such as NASA and the ESA are dedicated to conducting research in space. SpaceX and Boeing and other companies seek profit, and have so far achieved it through transporting cargo. The next logical step is transporting the astronauts themselves.