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Space Truckers Aren't Science Fiction Anymore

Sir Richard Branson owns Virgin Galactic, a company leading the tourism space race with its suborbital passenger spaceship, due out in December.
Richard Drew
Sir Richard Branson owns Virgin Galactic, a company leading the tourism space race with its suborbital passenger spaceship, due out in December.

With a growing budget deficit, there's not much appetite in Washington to increase NASA's funding. So some of what the agency does now, such as shipping cargo to the space station, will almost certainly be picked up by private companies.

Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, tells NPR's Guy Raz that companies are already preparing to take over low-Earth orbital services such as space trucking.

"Private companies are building both rockets and the capsules that go on top of them to ferry the cargo from orbit up to the space station," Alexander says. "Those rockets are being built and tested."


And just in time, too. Alexander says a report recently released from the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee says the time is right for commercial companies to step in. He adds that the report expresses confidence that commercial industries have the capability to perform these functions safely.

Privatizing space services would be cheaper in the long run for a couple of reasons, Alexander says. For one, "you can make the argument that the commercial industry might do it cheaper than the government would.

"The second reason, though, is that NASA — what they're building now — is focused on exploration," he says. "It's a much more capable system. To get to the space station and back, you really need a simpler system. And if the commercial industry focus is only on that simple system, then it can be done more cost-effectively and faster than the big system that's necessary to go beyond low-Earth orbit to the Moon or to asteroids or to Mars."

One company leading the space convoy is Space Exploration Technologies Corp. It's building its own rocket and what it calls a "Dragon" capsule to go on top. "This capsule is designed to take six or seven people up to the International Space Station," Alexander says.

Virgin Galactic is another company pioneering private space travel, Alexander says. It's "developing a suborbital spaceship for people to fly up to 100 kilometers, where you get a view of the darkness of the sky with all of the stars, as well as the curvature of the Earth below you and the thinness of the atmosphere.


"Folks will pay about $200,000 for those trips into space — three to four minutes of weightlessness to experience what it's like to be an astronaut," he says.

These plans aren't part of the far-flung future, either. Virgin Galactic plans to roll out that suborbital spaceship, named Spaceship 2, in December.

"That vehicle will probably begin its flight tests in the next year and then start flying people the year after that," Alexander says. "For orbital spaceflight to take people to the International Space Station, that could take anywhere from three to five years."

The first passengers will be NASA astronauts, he says, "but after that, regular people — regular rich people, if you will — will be able to start flying, and hopefully the price will come down eventually to the point where you and I would be able to fly."

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