When the first International Space Station (ISS) crew lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome early on Oct. 31, 2000, a lot of us watching the Soyuz rocket climb through a thick overcast wondered if we were witnessing history, or just the start of another human spaceflight mission with a beginning and eventual end date. So far, it has been history. At least two humans at a time have been living and working off the planet since Soyuz TM-31 lifted off with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko, Sergei Krikalev and astronaut William Shepherd that chilly morning. Conceivably, a human presence in space could be permanent.
When Expedition 1 docked, the ISS was a lot smaller and simpler than the orbiting outpost where the six members of Expedition 38 hang their helmets today. It consisted of Russia's Zarya and Zvezda modules and the U.S. Unity node (see photo). And there were only three ways to get there—on Russia's Soyuz and Progress capsules, for crew and cargo respectively, and on's space shuttle—all of them government owned and operated.
Today the station has 15 pressurized modules, with more on the way from Russia and Bigelow Aerospace, and four massive solar-array wings that would have dwarfed the original pressurized configuration. The surviving shuttles are in museums, but there is now so much traffic to and from the ISS that scheduling has become problematic. Russia still delivers crews with Soyuz capsules, and cargo with Progress vehicles. Europe and Japan have their respective ATV and HTV robotic cargo carriers on the manifest. But most of the cargo deliveries next year will come via a new class of vehicles that were barely a gleam in an engineer's eye when Gidzenko, Krikalev and Shepherd climbed aboard the station.
Russia is on the flight manifest for four Progress cargo missions in 2014;is down for at least five cargo flights, all to be flown under its new Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts with and . SpaceX is slated to deliver four loads of pressurized and unpressurized cargo with its unmanned Dragon vehicle next year, while Orbital is set for at least one Cygnus mission with a load of pressurized supplies for the ISS. They key word here is “commercial.” The two U.S.-built vehicles were developed by the companies that fly them, sharing development expenses with NASA but free to seek launch business beyond the NASA work.
SpaceX already has flown one non-NASA mission with the Falcon 9 rocket that launches Dragon—sending an Orbital Sciences communications satellite toward geostationary orbit for European satellite operator SES (AW&ST Dec. 9, p. 12). NASA is no longer the only customer for its commercial cargo fleet, and that too is historic.
Although it was started and funded—at $500 million—under the administration of President George W. Bush, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services effort was picked up by President Barack Obama's space wonks as a foot in the door to turning low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the private sector. The new administration argued that NASA should devote itself to deep-space exploration. Obama canceled the agency's Constellation program, triggering a nasty policy fight that ended only when Congress agreed to a compromise that let NASA continue funding development of the Orion crew capsule and start on a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System.
The SES launch on a Dragon could be another step toward the Obama administration's goal of seeding a new marketplace in LEO. So far, SpaceX has sent two loads of cargo to the ISS under its 12-flight, $1.6 billion CRS contract, and Orbital Sciences was ready to go with the first of eight CRS flights under its $1.9 billion contract. But as was the case with the Expedition 1 launch 13 years ago, there are always surprises in spaceflight—at least in the details.
An ammonia-pump failure last week in one of two main cooling loops sent the station into low-power mode to prevent its electrical systems from overheating, and that in turn forced Orbital to postpone its first CRS flight, which had been scheduled for Dec. 17. The international station partnership has repeatedly demonstrated it can recover from setbacks, including the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia as station assembly was wrapping up, and it probably will this time too.
Beyond the details, however, it is becoming clear that the ship of state has changed course on access to LEO, and that commercial spaceflight is becoming at least an alternative to government-funded space transport. Like a large ocean liner, it takes time to turn a 50-year-plus policy in a new direction. And like the permanent human presence in space since November 2000, it could change again on a bad day. But with SpaceX and other commercial companies hard at work on crew vehicles to complement the commercial cargo spacecraft now in operation, and dozens of companies looking for new ways to make a buck in a new space economy, 2013 is likely to go down in history as the year commercial human spaceflight started to take off.