Space Truckers Aren't Science Fiction Anymore With a growing budget deficit, there's not much appetite in Washington to increase NASA's funding. So some of what the agency does now, such as shipping cargo to the space station, will almost certainly be picked up by private companies.
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Space Truckers Aren't Science Fiction Anymore

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Space Truckers Aren't Science Fiction Anymore

Space Truckers Aren't Science Fiction Anymore

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GUY RAZ, host:

One way for NASA to achieve some of its goals, according to the Augustine Committee, might be by getting private industry more involved.

Bretton Alexander is the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He says private companies are already working to take over the job of space trucking, basically acting as a space version of a UPS van.

Mr. BRETTON ALEXANDER (President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation): Private companies are building both rockets and the capsules that go on top of them to ferry the cargo from orbit up to the space station. So those rockets are being built and tested, will fly from Cape Canaveral. The capsules will be put on top. It'll carry the water and oxygen and, you know, underwear and food that goes up to the space station.

RAZ: What are the prospects for private companies being a major player in manned spaceflight in the future?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, the Augustine Committee said the time is right, the commercial industry has the capabilities, and that the commercial folks would be able to do it safely. So it - we've been doing human spaceflight for 48 years, putting astronauts into lower Earth orbit. It's not new, so this would be commercial companies building capsules to put on proven existing rockets that fly national security payloads every day to take astronauts up to the station.

Financially, it's not incentivized to do it without NASA's help. But from a technical standpoint, the Augustine Committee said commercial industry is very capable of doing that.

RAZ: And the argument is it would be cheaper in the long run.

Mr. ALEXANDER: It would be cheaper for a couple of reasons. One, you can make the argument that the commercial industry might do it cheaper than the government would in and of itself. The second reason, though, is that NASA -what they're building now - is focused on exploration. It's a much more capable system.

To get to the space station and back, you really need a simpler system. And if the commercial industry focuses only on that simple system, then it can be done more cost-effectively and faster than the big system that's necessary to go beyond low Earth orbit to the moon or to asteroids or to Mars.

RAZ: Tell us a little bit about some of the companies involved here and what they're doing.

Mr. ALEXANDER: There's a company called SpaceX or Space Exploration Technologies, which is building its own rocket and then building what they call a Dragon capsule to go on top. And this capsule is designed to take six or seven people up to the International Space Station. They're already under contract with NASA for the cargo contract - to take cargo to the International Space Station. And so, it's very exciting. This is the first capsule being built by the private sector.

You have other companies, like Virgin Galactic, that is developing a suborbital spaceship for people to fly up to 100 kilometers, where you get a view of the darkness of the sky with all of the stars, as well as the curvature of the Earth, below you and the thinness of the atmosphere. Other companies are developing that capability as well. And folks will pay about $200,000 for those trips into space — three to four minutes of weightlessness to experience what it's like to be an astronaut.

RAZ: How far is a company like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic - how far are they from actually sending ordinary people up into space?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, Virgin Galactic is actually quite close. On December 7, they plan to roll out of their SpaceShipTwo, which is the vehicle that will take people into suborbital space. That vehicle will probably begin its flight test in the next year and then will start flying people the year after that.

For orbital spaceflight to take people to the International Space Station, that could take anywhere from three to five years. Those will be NASA astronauts in the beginning, but after that, regular people - regular rich people, if you will - will be able to start flying, and hopefully the price will come down eventually to the point where you and I would be able to fly.

RAZ: And do you get a discount if you want to go on any of these?

Mr. ALEXANDER: I sure hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Bretton Alexander is the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Mr. Alexander, thanks for coming in.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you.

RAZ: This is NPR News.

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