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At a glance

Why do we need Commercial Crew?

After the final flight of the Space Shuttle in July of 2011, the United States no longer had the ability to send its astronauts into space.

This was a problem. The final act of the space shuttle program was to complete the International Space Station (ISS)—the most ambitious human spaceflight project since Apollo. Designed to last for decades, the ISS is the primary destination for NASA's astronauts. Without the shuttle to send them there, NASA's only option was to buy seats on the Russian space agency's Soyuz vehicle. As of 2020, more than 70 astronauts have traveled to the ISS via Soyuz at a cost of nearly $4 billion.

It is politically unpalatable for the United States to spend billions of dollars supporting Russia's aerospace industry instead of its own. And the price of a single Soyuz seat has increased over time; most recently to $90 million. Fears have also grown about the reliability of the Russian program: in 2016, a Progress cargo supply vehicle failed to reach the ISS. In 2018 a Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague performed a rare emergency abort en route to orbit, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Human spaceflight, despite its highest ideals, remains a powerful statement of industrial and economic might. Of the 3 countries ever to send humans into space—Russia, the U.S., and China—none have permanently abandoned that capability. But for 9 years, the nation that first landed humans on the Moon has been unable to even launch them to Earth orbit.

Capture the flag

NASA

Capture the flag
A flag flown on the first and last space shuttle missions was left on the inner hatch of the International Space Station's Harmony node, where it awaits the next crew of astronauts that arrive aboard an American spacecraft.

It wasn't through a lack of trying. NASA initiated multiple Shuttle-replacement projects in the 1990s and 2000s—most notably, Constellation—but these failed due to a variety of design, cost, and political problems. Before the end of the shuttle program, NASA never had the necessary political support to simultaneously fund the construction of the ISS, develop a new human-capable spacecraft and rocket system, and continue flying the Space Shuttle—which cost the space agency $3.5 billion per year toward the end of its lifetime. 

Anticipating the need for an alternative to send cargo and crews to the ISS, NASA turned to the aerospace industry with a novel proposal: what if NASA was a customer, instead of your boss? In 2008, the agency signed contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation—now Northrop Grumman—to build and fly their own cargo vehicles to the ISS. The plan worked: not even a year after the shuttle program ended, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft made the first commercial berthing with the ISS. Orbital followed suit with its Cygnus spacecraft a year later. Could that approach work for humans too?

How does Commercial Crew work?

Private industry has always been integral to NASA's efforts. Historically, aerospace companies are contracted by NASA to design and build spacecraft under close supervision of the space agency. The companies never owned the final product.

Because space exploration is relatively novel and the complexities and costs so great, NASA guarantees to pay the full cost of development, even if the companies exceed their original cost estimates. Absent this guarantee, no company would take the financial risk to build something unprecedented—like the Saturn V rocket that blasted Apollo astronauts to the moon—that could bankrupt them in the attempt. Conversely, NASA had no interest in undermining the strategically-important aerospace industry by demanding strict cost-adherence for difficult projects.

Crew Dragon Before Its First Test Flight

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Crew Dragon Before Its First Test Flight
SpaceX's Crew Dragon atop its Falcon 9 booster, prior to its first uncrewed test flight in March of 2019. The retractable crew access arm is seen to the right.

The commercial crew program challenges this paradigm; it posits that sending humans to low-Earth orbit is no longer such a difficult problem. That is, the challenges are well-understood enough that private companies would be willing to risk their own money on the effort if NASA provided financial assistance and other incentives.

In the case of commercial crew, NASA offered billions of dollars to develop new human-capable spacecraft and dangled further billions in future contracts to send astronauts on those spacecraft to the ISS. The intellectual property would also remain with the companies, who could use it to generate additional revenue, potentially opening up new markets and economies.

NASA's financial contributions are fixed and paid only upon completion of verifiable milestones. Any cost overruns were shouldered by the companies themselves. In turn, NASA took a lighter regulatory touch after laying out its performance and safety requirements. In theory, these changes incentivized and enabled companies to find new efficiencies in development and production, lowering costs and allowing NASA to spend its money on other programs.

It appears to have succeeded.

In 2014, NASA's commercial crew program selected 2 companies to ferry astronauts to the ISS: SpaceX and Boeing. Having 2 companies increased competition, which helped to keep costs low and provided redundancy, increasing the likelihood that NASA would have access to the ISS in case one of the vehicles was grounded. 

Boeing's Starliner Crew Vehicle

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing's Starliner Crew Vehicle
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, sitting on top of its Atlas V rocket in the vertical integration facility, prior to its first uncrewed test flight in December of 2019.

Though NASA's original goal was for commercial vehicles to fly in 2015, Congress initially underfunded the program, delaying the first flights until 2017. Further technical problems for both SpaceX and Boeing pushed the first crewed launches to 2020 for SpaceX and 2021 for Boeing.

Since 2010, NASA has spent approximately $6 billion on its share of commercial crew development, with SpaceX and Boeing receiving the lion's share of that amount. If successful, it would be the least expensive human spaceflight development project pursued by NASA since the 1960s.

What can you do to support Commercial Crew?

The most important way you can support commercial crew is by explaining the role of NASA in this endeavor. Commercial crew, and the experiment with public-private partnerships, was the result of smart policy decisions made by NASA and White House leadership beginning in the mid-2000s and continuing in the early 2010s. NASA didn't sit back and wait for private industry to solve its problem of access to the ISS—it actively pursued this new approach.

By strategically investing in SpaceX and Boeing, NASA is helping to create a new industry, much like how the U.S Postal Service supported the fledgling private airline industry in the early 20th century by granting lucrative airmail delivery contracts. The question now is how broadly this approach can be applied in space exploration. NASA is now experimenting with fixed-price, public-private partnerships for the Artemis program's crewed lunar lander—a much harder project that is already facing political resistance.

The success of commercial crew still depends on the ability of SpaceX and Boeing to safely and reliably deliver astronauts to the ISS. Providing that happens, supporting experimentation and smart policy to reduce the costs of spaceflight is the best possible outcome from commercial crew.

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