Private firms helping NASA wean itself off the Russians

Mankind is once again on the verge of traveling to the moon thanks to private companies who now play a leading role in the future of space exploration. And these partnerships are opening a path by which NASA can shed its expensive dependence on Russia.

At the end of last month, SpaceX announced it will send two private citizens who paid a "significant deposit" around the moon and back to Earth. If successful, the flight would be the farthest distance any human has flown from Earth.

Through successful resupply missions to the International Space Station, Tesla CEO Elon Musk's SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have already proven that commercial enterprises can assist the space program. The next step, before the moon shot, is for these private ventures to send people up to the space station 220 miles above the Earth.

The future looks bright for space flight in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Brendan Curry, vice president of Washington operations for the Space Foundation, told the Washington Examiner that while the general climate in politics continues to be a toxic one after a contentious 2016 election, space exploration enjoys "bipartisan support." He pointed to the fact that the House just passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which appropriates $19.5 billion to the agency, the first time in more than six years that both chambers of Congress passed a NASA authorization bill. The bill, as of press time, now just needs President Trump's signature.

There are signs that the government is supportive of renewed U.S. leadership in space, but less certain is the role of up-and-coming companies such as SpaceX. NASA, after all, has its own program to return to space, the Space Launch System, which has been in development for years, and for which the manufacturing is being handled by longtime space partners such as Boeing.

The timing of SpaceX's mission to the moon is notable because it came only days after it was reported that NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, sent a note to employees pushing to speed up the process of putting a crew on an SLS flight as part of a preliminary test flight of a jumbo rocket attached to a Orion capsule in late 2018.

In that letter, Lightfoot mentioned that after meeting with Trump's' transition team that NASA is a "priority" for the administration.

NASA's space shuttle program saw its final liftoff in the summer of 2011, and ever since then, the agency has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, for seats on flights launching from Kazakhstan to the ISS.

If a series of SpaceX and ULA test flights and demonstrations scheduled for 2017 into 2018 is successful, then NASA has said it will certify the companies for crew rotation missions and end dependence on the Russians. While SpaceX has touted its plans to fly people into space as way to save NASA money in the long term, the space agency is still taking an expensive risk. NASA paid Boeing $4.2 billion and SpaceX $2.6 billion through contracts in its Commercial Crew Program.



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