The private-sector space industry could be just months away from a game-changing milestone: launching astronauts into space on rockets from SpaceX and Boeing ( BA ).
[ibd-display-video id=2117998 width=50 float=left autostart=true] SpaceX, founded by Tesla ( TSLA ) CEO Elon Musk, already launches capsules for NASA to resupply the International Space Station. But those don't have humans on board. Certifying spacecraft that can safely and reliably deliver astronauts to space would mark the biggest leap ahead to date for a rapidly growing commercial space sector.
"As soon as people enter the picture, it's really a giant step up in making sure things go right," Musk said at the International Space Station Research and Development conference in July. "The oversight from NASA is much tougher."
For 30 years, NASA used its fleet of space shuttles to take astronauts to and from space, until they were decommissioned in 2011. Since then, the space agency has had to book rides on Russia's space program.
But that is about to change as NASA turns to the private sector for "space taxi" services while it focuses more on deep-space exploration. In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract and SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract to develop spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station.
Test flights and certifications for manned missions were initially seen by the end of 2017. But the schedule has since slipped, and now SpaceX's uncrewed mission is set for April and its manned test is in August. Boeing's unmanned test is due in August, and its crewed test is scheduled for November.
If all goes well, regular manned missions to the ISS will start in 2019. NASA plans to pay both Boeing and SpaceX for up to six launches each, with no plans to downselect to just one launch provider in the future. Keeping two providers handy would also help guarantee that NASA wouldn't have to turn to another country again.
"The U.S. doesn't have the capability to launch its own crew from U.S. soil at the moment, like we had with the shuttle," said John Elbon, head of the development of integrated strategy for Boeing's Human Space Flight Programs. "Right now there are only two countries - Russia and China, not the U.S. - and that's not a good thing."
Contracting with a U.S. provider is also expected to save money. At two launches per year, NASA estimates each seat will cost $54 million vs. the $81.8 million per seat the U.S. paid the Russians in 2015.
IBD'S TAKE: A new space age is dawning as billionaires like Elon Musk and Amazon's Jeff Bezos look to explore deeper into the final frontier and make space exploration and commercial development more affordable .
But Boeing's design doesn't completely end America's reliance on Russia as the capsule will be launched on an Atlas V rocket, which has a Russian-built engine.
United Launch Alliance, a Boeing- Lockheed Martin ( LMT ) joint venture, is building a new Vulcan rocket with a U.S.-built engine to replace the Atlas V.
Amazon ( AMZN ) CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space startup, which is developing the BE-4 engine, and Aerojet Rocketdyne ( AJRD ), which is developing the AR1, are competing to power the first stage of the Vulcan.
Meanwhile, Boeing is also developing its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner capsule to fit up to seven astronauts, and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule is also expected to carry seven.
SpaceX plans to launch its capsule on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 rocket known as Block 5, which is currently in development.
The coming year will also see another key milestone for SpaceX as the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V moonshot behemoth, the Falcon Heavy, is scheduled to have its maiden flight in January. (In fact, SpaceX has even said it plans to send two unnamed passengers on a round trip to the moon sometime in 2018 using the Falcon Heavy and Dragon capsule.)
The Falcon Heavy consists of two first-stage boosters from Falcon 9 rockets on either side of a central booster that's a modified version of the Falcon 9. The Heavy, which will also be reusable, is expected to have double the payload capacity of the current top dog, United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, and is already scheduled to launch three commercial satellites and an Air Force payload.
Longer term, SpaceX and Boeing both expect to face off in a race to put astronauts on Mars. Earlier this year, Musk said it's possible a mission without a crew could reach Mars in 2022, followed by crewed missions in 2024. But Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has vowed that his company will be the first to send humans to Mars.
"I describe that competition as a golf match," Elbon said. "We as a Boeing team have to play our own ball. It's not a game where you play the other team. We are developing these capsules and we'll fly it working on getting our costs competitive; look at the score card and see what you've got vs. other folks."
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