Private companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are making trips to the International Space Station look as easy as using Federal Express.
The commercial space rivals are jockeying to be the firm NASA turns to when it must put satellites and other material into space fast. Last week, Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft, carrying scientific experiments, food, clothes, and other supplies, docked with the state station after a software glitch had temporarily sidelined it.
The same day, SpaceX launched its powerful Falcon 9 into space, in a demonstration it hopes will provide an edge when contracts are awarded to build the next generation of heavy-lift rockets. Eventually, it will have to go head-to-head with the aerospace partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to complete eight cargo missions to the space station. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion agreement to ferry supplies to the station.
SpaceX could fly higher if it wins a race with Sierra Nevada and Boeing to get the contract to carry astronauts into space. Not content with remaining in low Earth orbit, SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, is determined to colonize Mars as soon as his company develops a craft that can make the trip safely.
Unleashing the commercial potential of space flight may be one of the best things that has happened to America’s space program.