Commercial “Space Taxis” Rack Up Funding

As noted previously, Curiosity’s landing on Mars is an amazing feat of engineering and another step forward for the exploration of space. In this period of monetary woes, some people have questioned whether the funding used for Curiosity might have been better spent elsewhere. I’m not going to say the $2.5 billion cost was cheap, but compare that to the approximately $14.4 billion spent on the 2012 Olympics and it might not seem quite as bad.

NASA’s cash flow has seen a steady decline since the heady days of the Apollo program, leading to the current plan of using commercial entities for manned trips to the International Space Station (ISS) and other such near-Earth jaunts. Currently, the U.S. is forced to rely on the Russians for travel to the ISS at the cost of $60 million a passenger. While that might seem expensive, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $1 billion per shuttle mission.

Commercial Space Craft

From left-to-right, Boeing's CST-100, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser and SpaceX's Dragon.

Depending on the goodwill of a foreign country for space travel is hardly the best solution for the U.S., and NASA has been assisting in the development of commercial entities to act as “space taxis” for years. The final result of a call for proposals has led to SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada being selected to receive $1.1 billion in funds.

SpaceX has managed a successful launch and flight of its Dragon capsule and additional funding is being provided to adapt it to carry a full crew. The Dragon will end up being more of a space truck than taxi, with its primary goal of transporting cargo to the ISS. Boeing’s CST-100 capsule will carry crew for the ISS and to commercial stations, assuming they materialize. Only Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser actually looks like a shuttle and would be capable of transport and near-Earth missions alike.

All these preparations are meant to lead up to viable commercial space traffic by the year 2015. NASA has stated it plans to use savings from scrapping the shuttle program to develop manned travel missions to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. Part of Curiosity’s mission is to determine what steps need to be taken to make such a trip safe for human explorers.

Is all of this worth the money? I’ll leave you with a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson when he was interviewed by NPR’s David Greene, and you can decide for yourself.

Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival. Not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that’s the culture that innovates. And in the 21st century, innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow’s economy.

Below you’ll find a video showing Dragon’s successful docking with the ISS.

Sources: NBC, NASA, NPR

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