It takes a lot of energy to launch a spacecraft into orbit – the Space Shuttle, for example, used over one million pounds of solid propellant to power its rocket boosters. As you can imagine, over the last 28 years of shuttle service it has been responsible for over 42,000 tonnes of pollutants in the atmosphere. However we still need rockets to get supplies and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This, as well as the growth of the space tourism industry, has seen NASA lay down a challenge for US engineering firms to design and build ‘space taxis‘ able to take at least four people into space.
As part of the scheme, NASA is planning on investing between $300 million and $500 million in two firms that have been selected under new 21-month partnership agreements. It is hoped that the program will also build upon previous NASA investments in companies that have designed commercial passenger spaceships.
Ever since the US shuttle fleet was retired, the space industry has been led by two countries – Russia and China. Russia is heading the monopoly by charging NASA about $60 million per person for rides to the International Space Station station, so it is no surprise that NASA is looking for a cheaper option.
The design firms have until May 2014 to complete the initial designs, and test flights are scheduled to commence by the middle of the decade. In order to be selected, they must be able to reach an altitude of 230 miles, maneuver in space, and stay in orbit for three days.
2001: A Space Odyssey showed that mankind should have had these 11 years ago – it’s time for NASA to catch up with science-fiction. Speaking of which, engineers have just three years to create a working hoverboard (according to Back to the Future Pt. 2)