Failure and the Advancement of Commercial Space Programs

NASA’s Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO) partners with private companies to reduce costs associated with flying supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station. The innovative program awarded multi-billion dollar contracts to Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, effectively creating a new commercial space industry. Two high-profile mission failures in the past year have called into question the viability of these programs.

Pioneering an industry is a fundamentally risk-prone endeavor. The inevitable failures that will occur along the way to making space transport services safer, more reliable, and cost effective should not be used as justification for ending the commercial space effort altogether.

It’s been a month since the SpaceX CRS-7 mishap that saw more than 4,000 lbs of food, water, and hardware intended for the International Space Station (ISS) disintegrate shortly after launch, along with the Falcon 9 rocket carrying it.

The incident, which SpaceX has determined was caused by a faulty strut, was the second commercial cargo mission failure in the last year.

  • October, 2014: Orbital Sciences (ATK) Anteres unmanned ISS resupply rocket
  • June, 2015: SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-7 unmanned ISS resupply rocket

Commercial Crew & Cargo Programs

Orbital ATK and SpaceX both hold contracts with NASA’s Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO), part of an effort to reduce costs associated with ferrying supplies and astronauts to the ISS so NASA can focus resources on Mars and other deep space missions.

SpaceX and Orbital are the first companies to achieve successful cargo deliveries to the space station, a key milestone for the burgeoning commercial space industry. According to NASA’s 2014 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services report:

“These successful missions represented the fruition of six years of intensive work executed under partnership agreements between NASA and the commercial space community—partnerships that both resulted in the availability of cost-effective cargo transportation services for the Agency, and the advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry”

But despite repeated successes of commercial contractors like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Boeing, the commercial crew and cargo programs still suffer the doubts of those uneasy about the viability or purpose of such programs.

These doubts are easily fueled by the prominent media coverage of recent failures. As reported in The Los Angeles Times:

“Some will attempt to make this the tombstone of commercial space,” said Charles Lurio, a Boston space analyst who publishes the Lurio Report. “But there is no alternative but to do more of it and more often.”

That “no alternative” bit is a big deal.

When the United States retired the space shuttle program, NASA was left with no domestic capability to launch astronauts or supplies to the space station, forcing reliance on Russia to the tune of $70 million per seat.

Of course, $70 million might seem like pocket change when compared to the ISS – a $150 billion international asset and the most expensive object ever created by mankind.

Why ISS?

Aboard the space station, astronauts perform experiments with profound implications on the future of humanity. The space station’s role in the future of manned spaceflight (and ultimately, the survival of our species) is vital to the space program.

That’s why commercial crew and cargo programs are so important. The U.S. cannot abandon its commitment to the ISS in favor of deep space missions because ISS research in many ways enables those missions.

NASA has to reduce the cost of transportation to low-Earth orbit so it can maintain the capability to develop technologies to explore deep space.

Commercial development and operation of safe, reliable, and cost-effective commercial space transportation systems will lower launch costs – a lot. Contracts with SpaceX and Boeing will eventually achieve $12 million in savings per astronaut launched.

A New Industry

The Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office, in conjunction with its various private sector partners, is pioneering the birth of a new commercial space industry.

The benefits of this new industry include not only cost savings for American taxpayers, but also technological advances that make U.S. launch vehicles more competitive in foreign markets.

As this new industry seeks to pioneer technologies that make space exploration and science safer and more cost-effective, failures like CRS-7 and Anteres are bound to happen. NASA’s early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions were also prone to such failures.

In the face of failure it’s understandable to question the costs and benefits of commercial space programs, but the short- and long-term benefits of the commercial crew and cargo programs far outweigh the costs.

Failure is the price of progress.

Thanks for reading! Please leave comments and let me know if you think I’m an idiot.

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