The first private-sector flight to the International Space Station will open up myriad opportunities for science
Next month, SpaceX, an aerospace company in Hawthorne, California, is scheduled to launch the first cargo resupply mission by a commercial space company to the International Space Station (ISS). Its Falcon 9 orbital rocket will send to the station a Dragon capsule stocked with food, water and other astronaut provisions.
The flight will be the first of many resupply missions, under contract by NASA to SpaceX in a deal worth around US$1.6 billion. But more importantly, it represents the entry of commercial space companies into the big league. It will place SpaceX at the heart of ISS operations and will open up important capabilities for science by increasing the number of future science experiments aboard the station and providing a way to bring samples produced in microgravity back to Earth.
The flight is a watershed, but it is just the beginning of the potentially game-changing capabilities and economic promise of the emerging commercial space industry for science.
Take the realm of suborbital flight — missions that stay just a short time in space. It has been used effectively by researchers around the world for more than 60 years to test new techniques and technologies, conduct special-purpose observations and train students. But the concept is about to undergo a reboot, thanks to commercial firms such as Virgin Galactic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Blue Origin in Seattle, Washington, along with less well known but equally interesting entrants XCOR Aerospace and Masten Space Systems in Mojave, California, and Armadillo Aerospace in Heath, Texas. The companies will revolutionize suborbital access by lowering costs to a tenth of those today by flying reusable rather than throw-away space vehicles.
Together, these firms will vastly increase access to microgravity for scientists, instrument technology testers and educators, in much the same way that personal computers expanded access to computing in the 1980s from the mainframe machines of the 1970s.
And commercial space companies offer science capabilities and options at more than just the low altitudes at which the station and suborbital vehicles fly. The Google Lunar X Prize is spurring companies such as Moon Express in San Francisco, California, backed by deep-pocketed Internet moguls, to offer flights to the Moon for cut-rate prices.