Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is racing Boeing to be the first private company to send humans to the International Space Station (ISS), a top NASA official said in a Tuesday web conference.
In just over a year, “we may see our first test-crewed flight,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development. “This is new, and not a lot of people have had a lot of experience on this,” he added.
SpaceX has a human test flight planned for October 2017, while Boeing has a flight scheduled for May 2018. NASA is working with both companies to reach their goals.
NASA’s conference focused on how private companies are likely to get Americans into orbit before the government’s own space agency. NASA’s last Space Shuttle launched five years ago last week, but the space agency still cannot put men into space without Russian cooperation due to President Barack Obama’s cuts to the agency’s spaceflight capability.
NASA’s plans to return astronauts to Earth’s orbit without Russian help are dependent on SpaceX, Boeing and other private companies.
SpaceX and Boeing, along with other companies, have made huge advancements in reusable rocketry. Reusable space technology is considered a major advance because it has the potential to lower the costs of getting into orbit, which are high due to expensive rocket components.
Blue Origin launched and landed the first reusable rocket into space last November after SpaceX failed on two separate occasions to successfully land a reusable rocket. The company is already opening “early access” to ticket information for potential space tourists.
Private companies aren’t the only ones embracing reusable space travel. India’s scientists have already flown tests for the country’s own reusable Space Shuttle, and estimate that the final version could make launching satellites 10 times cheaper than it is today. If India’s test of the scaled-down concept succeeds, it will be the third country in history after America and the Soviet Union to operate a reusable shuttle. Only a small group of private companies such as Scaled Composites, Blue Origin and SpaceX have successfully operated a reusable spacecraft.
America’s Space Shuttle was only technically reusable because its giant fuel tank was discarded after each launch, and its side boosters were parachuted into corrosive salt water. This required them to be extensively refurbished after use, making the Space Shuttle extremely expensive.
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