Commentary: The Second Great Space Race

With the final space shuttle flying, many wonder, what’s next? Well, tighten your seat belt. The second great space race is about to begin and it could shave two to three years off astronauts' down time without something American to fly.

Bruce Weaver | AFP | Getty Images

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy challenged America to create a program to race — and beat — the old Soviet Union to the moon, and today President Barack Obama and NASA are taking a page from Kennedy’s playbook.

As the sun sets on American spaceships for what some experts argue will be at least five to seven years, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a veteran astronaut, has come up with a "twofer"—a cost-cutting plan that will have private rockets and spacecraft builders racing to the finish line with new hardware.

In April, NASA awarded more than $269 million in contracts to build commercial spaceships: two capsules, a space plane and a gumdrop spaceship to taxi astronauts to and from the International Space Station or other destinations in low Earth orbit.

Here’s the contract lineup:

  • Blue Origin, a secretive company founded by CEO Jeff Bezos, was awarded $22 million. Blue Origin will work on its gumdrop capsule and an escape system.
  • A contract for $80 million to the Sierra Nevada Corporation. This little-known company plans to build a reusable Dream Chaser space plane that looks and feels like a mini-space shuttle. The craft is designed to ride a rocket into orbit and land on a runway.
  • A little more than $92 million went to Boeing, the foursome’s most experienced, to continue building its Apollo-style CST-100 capsule. Boeing hopes its CST-100 will also visit private space stations like the one to be launched by Bigelow Aerospace.
  • SpaceX received $75 million. The new company has two successful Cape Canaveral launches under its belt.

Seven months ago, something happened that shook the space establishment to its roots. SpaceX’s privately-built rocket, named Falcon 9, climbed into orbit and turned loose its privately-built spacecraft, named Dragon, which scooted around earth twice, maneuvering its flight path before parachuting into the eastern Pacific 500 miles from its flight control center in Hawthorne, Calif.

NASA - The Next Generation - A CNBC Special Report
NASA - The Next Generation - A CNBC Special Report

It was an unqualified success for American private industry participating in NASA’s commercial space adventure. SpaceX put $600 million into the project, while NASA donated $278 million in seed money.

SpaceX says it could be delivering supplies to the International Space Station by the end of this or early next year. The company added that astronauts could fly into orbit in upgraded Dragon capsules as early as 2014.

New Competition For a Place in Space

The success of the new boys on the block has the old boys nervous, and this works to the advantage of NASA and American taxpayers.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft is obviously the Cadillac of the entries in this great second space race, and the company’s vice president and program manager of Commercial Crew Programs, John Elbon, told me, “Assuming adequate NASA funding, we can have our Commercial Crew Transportation System operational in 2015.”

Elbon added, “Boeing is offering a complete integrated turnkey operation that includes a launch vehicle.”

Wow! That means American astronauts would be riding their own ships to and from the International Space Station in three or four years, not seven or more. Until then they will be hitching a ride on Russian spacecraft, a fact that sticks in the craw of many.

The key here would be the launch vehicle for Boeing’s CST 100.

Standing by is arguably the world’s most reliable rocket: a U.S.-European vehicle which is an upgraded version of the space shuttle’s solid booster rocket that has flown perfectly 216 times, and France’s Ariane-5 rocket as a second stage that has flown 41 times successfully.

The rocket, called Liberty, is being offered by ATK Space Launch Systems. It’s capable of carrying all crew vehicles in development today.

“Both stages of Liberty were designed for human rating from the beginning,” said ATK Vice President Charlie Precourt, a veteran astronaut and former director of NASA’s flight crew operations. The other rockets haven’t yet gone through the time-consuming process to be certified as safe for flying humans.

What’s more, an earlier variant of Liberty has already flown in the form of the Ares 1-X rocket, and it already has its launch pad and facilities to accommodate astronauts. Although the Ares project was canceled last year, that experience gives Liberty an extra boost in this second space race. “We can perform a test flight in late 2013 and deliver crew by 2015,” Precourt said.

Boeing is currently talking with the Liberty folks about using its rocket to boost the CST-100’s first flights with hopes of making a decision next month.

Moon Shot
Moon Shot

If ATK’s Liberty and Boeing’s CST-100 team up, the U.S.-European rocket should open the door for customers in international governments desiring their own space program.

“Even though Boeing will have to settle on a launch vehicle to meet its first flight in 2015,” said Boeing’s Elbon, “this does not preclude recertifying other launch vehicles in the future.”

In fact, Boeing is talking to other rocket makers and is a partner in United Launch Alliance, operators of the highly successful Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which are not yet rated to fly humans.

Reportedly, Boeing believes it has the time to man rate and build the astronaut support facilities for its Atlas V, and just may ask Liberty to stand by for possible later use.

Critics say the huge aerospace company will be taking more chances that something could go wrong with Atlas V instead of using the ready now Liberty, adding, “Boeing could find itself eating SpaceX’s dust.”

Once the new boys from SpaceX demonstrate they can safely deliver cargo to the International Space Station they will be on solid footing to outfit their Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. Can they beat Boeing’s CST-100 is the question?

You can bet it’ll be a race to the finish line by the old and the new. And when there are two or more players in a market, the competition cuts costs for the consumers—in this case, NASA and the American taxpayers. All of us end up being the ultimate winners.

Who needs a one-horse race?

Jay Barbree has been covering the space beat for NBC News for decades. He is a bestselling author, a finalist to be the first journalist in space, and the only reporter to cover all astronaut flights before the 2011 hiatus. Barbree is the recipient of NASA’s highest medal for public service, and he broke the cause of the Challenger disaster on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. His book, "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landing," was updated and republished in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first American in space.