Carlton Hemphill, MJLST Staffer
With upcoming elections and the ongoing pandemic on the minds of many, it’s easy to get lost in the negatives of 2020. However, one shining star of a historic event took place on May 30, 2020, NASA astronauts once again launched from U.S. soil, and for the first time on commercially produced and maintained spacecraft. The mission to the International Space Station (ISS) went as well as anyone could have hoped for: uneventful. It sounds ironic to describe such a monumental moment as being “uneventful,” but in the context of strapping humans to the tip of a rocket and blasting them into space, “uneventful” is good. It is also a testament to how far the privatization of space exploration has come. SpaceX, the company responsible for the successful launch of NASA astronauts to the ISS, did not start out with success. Many of their early launch attempts of the Falcon 1 ended in disaster, nearly putting the company out of business. However, with the help of government contracts SpaceX was able to continue researching and developing their rockets to the point of being an industry leader.
What about the economy? Good news for the U.S. economy and taxpayers alike.
Besides allowing for this milestone of American science and engineering to occur, government contracts for commercial space exploration prove to be economically beneficial. Prior to the May 30th mission, NASA was paying a premium to launch astronauts on Russian spacecraft, and virtually all commercial satellite launches had been outsourced to Russia and China. It appeared as if the United States was out of the space game. With the then existing technology, domestic aerospace companies were unable to match the prices offered by foreign competitors. The economic incentives provided by government contracts to domestic companies such as SpaceX, have reversed this trend. They have allowed companies to invest in research that has led to tremendous cost savings, such as a reusable first stage rocket engine, and increased reliability and safety. Domestic companies are now able to offer safe and reliable space travel cheaper than foreign competitors. This has once again shifted power back to the United States, with SpaceX controlling the market for commercial satellites, as well as the future launches of NASA astronaut missions. NASA plans to continue using commercial spacecraft for its next mission to the ISS. The mission, named SpaceX Crew–1, is slotted for November 14, 2020, and will bring three NASA astronauts and one Japanese mission specialist to the ISS. So, stay tuned, and stay excited!
Is there more to commercial space exploration than satellites and astronauts? Sure there is.
The idea of sending paying customers into space is nothing new and has been talked about since space travel first became a reality. The recent success of commercializing space has reignited talk about profiting from those curious to venture out of this world (especially with the way 2020 has gone). NASA has even gotten on board with economizing space and is planning on allowing “private astronauts” to spend up to 30 days on the ISS for the low cost of $35,000 per night, plus shipping and handling (i.e. launch costs for commercial spacecraft). It seems that the end goal of both the government and private companies is to stimulate a space economy. While this concept might initially seem hard to imagine, one need only look to the evolution of the aviation industry for a reality check.
Of course, when a space economy becomes reality, there will be a pressing need for increased laws and regulations. While space travel has been around for over half a century, and a good body of laws pertaining to space already exist, the concept of commercialized space travel is still relatively new and uncharted territory. Lawmakers will most likely turn to the aviation industry for guidance on how to regulate this growing field. As technology advances and propels people further into previously uncharted territory, the law must follow hand in hand and evolve to the changing circumstances.