What the future of the space station looks like after SpaceX’s historic launch

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With the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch this weekend, NASA now has the capability to launch its own astronauts from the US once again — and that means changes are in store for the future of the International Space Station. Soon, a new suite of vehicles could be regularly flying people to the station from the Florida coast, along with the Russian Soyuz rocket that has been solely responsible for taking humans to the outpost since 2011.

This will be a new era of human spaceflight where private vehicles and state-operated vehicles fly along aside one another, getting humans into space, and to the ISS. Here’s how traffic to the space station will evolve as SpaceX and NASA’s other commercial partner, Boeing, start sending people to and from the ISS on a regular basis.

The Russian relationship

Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA and Russia’s space corporation, Roscosmos, have been locked in a symbiotic relationship. NASA needed Russia in order to get its own astronauts and international partners to the International Space Station. Russia benefitted from NASA’s money — one seat on Russia’s Soyuz capsule runs NASA upward of $80 million.

That’s been good for the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos. “Mutual dependency actually makes for a pretty good working relationship,” Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tells The Verge. “By all accounts, everyone I’ve talked to at NASA has said that even as the geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia has deteriorated, their relationship — when it comes to the ISS — has remained as strong as ever.”

Now that NASA has a brand-new ride, that once codependent relationship between the space agencies is going to evolve. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that he has had discussions with Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, about trading seats on each nation’s vehicles moving forward, rather than purchasing them. “If we are going to maintain a complement of both Russian and American astronauts on board, then we need to be willing to launch Russian cosmonauts on Commercial Crew, and they need to be willing to launch American astronauts on the Soyuz,” Bridenstine said. “And my last conversations with Dmitry Rogozin, I think we were both in strong agreement that was necessary for both nations as we move forward.”

Rogozin publicly congratulated NASA and SpaceX on the launch. That positive reaction stands in stark contrast to Rogozin’s comments from 2014, when he publicly decried US sanctions against the Russian space industry and made a dig at NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” Rogozin tweeted at the time. (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joked about this comment after the launch this weekend, arguing that “the trampoline is working.”)

Russia’s Soyuz rocket
Image: NASA

The reality is NASA’s dependency on Russia’s Soyuz rocket gave Roscosmos an important reason to keep its rockets and capsules in production. It brought in a lot of funding, too. “What’s going to change is that Russia is losing a major source of revenue for their space industry,” says Harrison. “As the US will no longer need to buy Soyuz flights.” This year, the budget for Roscosmos is about 176 billion rubles, according to a report in TASS, which equates to $2.77 billion. It’s a fraction of NASA’s budget, which is set at $22.6 billion for 2020. All told, NASA’s purchasing of Soyuz seats accounted for 17 percent of the annual Roscosmos budget in 2018, according to CSIS.

As a result of this new operational shift, it’s possible we could see fewer flights of the Soyuz in the future, Harrison says. “Economically, demographically, they are in a decline,” he says. “And there’s little chance they’re going to pull out anytime soon. So in terms of a space power, they’ve got the technology, but they are going to be able to do less and less with that technology as years go by.”

For now, NASA maintains that its relationship with Roscosmos is strong, and the space agency did purchase one additional seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket for this fall. But after that, the new trading will begin, and it’ll become more clear how that affects the bottom line for Roscosmos.

Open for business

Though SpaceX was the first to fly astronauts, the company is not the only company working on a private spacecraft for NASA. Boeing is still developing its own crew capsule, the CST-100 Starliner, aimed at doing the same thing as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. But there’s still a way to go before people will be flying on the vehicle.

Boeing conducted an uncrewed test flight of the Starliner in December, which didn’t go to plan. A number of software glitches surfaced during the mission, ultimately preventing the capsule from reaching the space station as expected. The company had to bring the Starliner home early without ever demonstrating its docking capabilities. Boeing will have to redo that flight, without crew on board, sometime this fall.

That means for the year ahead, SpaceX will probably be the only private company sending astronauts to the ISS. But once Boeing demonstrates it can dock the Starliner safely with the space station and then bring the capsule home, the company will also send its own crew into orbit. When that happens, three vehicles capable of carrying NASA astronauts to the station will be in operation, when there was just one before.

With this change, eventually other people might join NASA astronauts on journeys to the space station. Bridenstine has made the main goal of the Commercial Crew Program very clear: return human spaceflight to American soil. But a second goal of the program has been to open up access to space, allowing both SpaceX and Boeing to sell seats on their vehicles to private customers. NASA is also making the space station available for commercial opportunities, something the agency has been strictly against in the past.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, ahead of its uncrewed test flight.
Image: Boeing

SpaceX has already announced plans to send tourists into space on the Crew Dragon. The company is sending four tourists on a trip to orbit. They also plan to send private citizens to the ISS next year for a private company called Axiom, which plans to build its own space station to launch in 2024. And there’s a big possibility that Tom Cruise will fly on the Crew Dragon to film some kind of movie on the ISS in the future.

Whether these kinds of private trips become routine depends on the price. One seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon runs NASA about $55 million, while one seat on Boeing’s Starliner runs $90 million. While SpaceX is less expensive, for the average customer, both costs are still well out of reach. “A lot of it depends on how much they can get the cost down for both SpaceX and Boeing,” Harrison says. “SpaceX clearly has its eye on space tourism, in offering flights to folks that can afford it, and that would generate more volume for sure.”

Harrison argues this could go a long way toward commercializing the ISS — using the station for private production, manufacturing, or space tourism. It’s something that NASA is very keen to make happen. Once SpaceX and Boeing start flying regularly, we’ll find out whether other non-space companies are even interested in sending people and property to the space station. It’s possible they may not be. “It’s not clear that the business case will close on these things,” says Harrison. “We’ve got to see experimentation, adaptation, before we really know what’s going to work in terms of commercialization, and what’s not going to work.”

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