Will 2012 Mark the Start of Commercial Space Flights

Many Americans believe that America’s space program ended when the shuttle system was dismantled last year. The truth is that America is even more dedicated to having a thriving space program.

2012 will be the year when commercial space missions take flight. Programs that are in development range from the biggest program that the U.S. can carry out to small, independent firms that will be able to launch their own crafts into space. Space.com has an excellent review of the 12 most exciting space missions that are planned for 2012.

According to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA),

“Commercial space transportation is a vital component to the future of human space exploration. As NASA charts a new course to send humans deeper into space than ever before, we are stimulating efforts within the private sector to develop and operate safe, reliable and affordable commercial space transportation systems.”

NASA will begin the transition to commercial space transportation systems with a new form of partnership with commercial firms. The Space Act Agreements (SAAs) will be used instead of contracts to allow competition between companies that want to eventually launch astronauts into orbit. 

The agency did not get the money that it expected for 2012, so it worked out a different plan with Congress and the White House. This plan gets rid of traditional contracts that are no where near flexible enough to work in a volatile budgeting environment. Because the commercial phase of U.S. space exploration is inherently design and test focused, even the firms that will be offering the space transportation services require new designs, themselves.

The Space Ace Agreements will recognize that the program is mostly a series of steps toward certification, rather than direct implementation of something that will just get into space and do the job. A lot of new concepts will have to be developed and the missions and equipment must be proved to have enough safety and reliability to satisfy the owner of the International Space Station, which is Russia.

Orbital Sciences Corporation is building the Cygnus spacecraft. This spacecraft is scheduled for a demonstration flight in February. It will ride on an Orbital Taurus II launch vehicle under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services agreement with the company. This craft is expected to carry supplies in an unmanned state, but much has to be worked out and tested before it will be allowed to actually dock with and transfer supplies to the station.

The Boeing Co. will manufacture and assemble its CST-100 spacecraft at the Orbiter Processing Facility-3 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, creating 500 jobs by 2015. These craft will be built to carry humans into orbit.

Lockheed is working on the Orion multi purpose exploration crew vehicle. This commercial design will support low Earth orbit and deeper space exploration.

Other companies with funded Space Act agreements include Sierra Nevada Corp and Blue Origin. Unfunded agreements have been made with United Launch Alliance, ATK and Excalibur Almaz.

Space Tourism

Sir Richard Branson is developing Virgin Galactic at a commercial base in Mojave, California.  Virgin Galactic is planning test flights during 2012 for a tourism plan that will eventually take well heeled (or sponsored) tourists into the suborbital realm and back for a fee of about $200,000. More than 400 potential tourists have paid in advance for their trips.

So 2012 will be a busy year both for private and government sponsored space exploration and development, with a commercial twist that will see the U.S. into the future with far more realistic budgeting and funding support than in the past.