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A Turning Point in Human Spaceflight

May 31, 2020 (EIRNS)—As the NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine pointed out this afternoon, this is the fifth time in NASA’s history that a completely new spacecraft has been tested with a crew. The level of precision construction, reusability and autonomous operation of the Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 system portends a great drop in the cost of getting people to low Earth orbit—so much so that we will soon see orbiting space factories supplied and tended by crewed SpaceX Dragons and Boeing Starliners, as well as robotic systems.

For example, after 20 years of research and experiments aboard the International Space Station, a number of areas have been identified as candidates for manufacture in orbiting space factories: fiber optics; higher-strength, lower-weight alloy products; satellites; biomedical research components such as protein crystals; biological tissues, including human organs; microencapsulation.

The Crew Dragon is designed to autonomously deliver crews with minimal training to the ISS and the new category of orbiting factories. Each Dragon will be initially used to carry people and subsequently reused on multiple cargo flights. As EIR reported in “Your Life on Mars,” Axiom Space has signed a contract with NASA to rent space on the ISS. Following initial tests aboard the ISS, Axiom will then attach a series of modules to the ISS in which space manufacturing will begin. As production systems prove themselves, groups of modules will be separated from the ISS to form independent space factories tended by commercial robotic and crewed vehicles (such as the Crew Dragon).

Bigelow Aerospace, with a test inflatable module which has been operating on the ISS for years, has just been waiting for the new transportation systems to come online, for it to be able to set up orbiting inflated stations for industry or tourism.

The further commercial development of these orbiting capabilities has been held back by the lack of affordable, reliable and quick-response transportation systems to low Earth orbit. Every mission is unique, so it is difficult at this stage to quantify and compare the costs of various systems (especially since some figures include R&D and some only include operating costs). However, some published figures should give an idea of the change which is upon us: From 1970-2000 typical freight-to- orbit costs were around $18,500 per kilogram; typical costs for a Falcon 9 freight launch are around $2,720 per kilogram. Better than trying to quantify in money terms, the process of getting cargo and people into orbit is just becoming a smoother, simpler, more automated and autonomous process.

Later this year, Boeing’s Starliner will fly a second unmanned test flight before beginning crewed flights to the ISS next year. Next year the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s winged Dream Chaser will begin making cargo flights to the ISS. Right now, SpaceX is rapidly developing a completely-and-quickly-reusable spacecraft called Starship which will bring launch costs down even further than its Falcon 9. SpaceX is highly vertically integrated (not very dependent upon outside subcontractors) and is constantly pursuing improvement of product and manufacturing process (with more and more systems such as the main engine body of the launch abort system’s SuperDraco rockets being fabricated via additive manufacturing systems).

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