Science 3 min read

The Future of Commercial Space Flight is Here

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Over a month ago, a six-hour, routine spacewalk single-handedly changed both the future of commercial space flight and an entire era of geopolitics, but no one seemed to notice. While access to the new standard docking system recently installed on the ISS will encourage commercial spaceflight, how will such access be regulated?

Like a preview of a future where spaceflight is driven by private companies, in early August a SpaceX craft delivered two docking adaptors to the International Space Station, or “ISS”.

About a week later, on August 19th, astronauts successfully installed the first of the new docking adapters on the ISS. Once completely installed, the International Docking System Standard will allow a variety of spacecraft to dock with the ISS– including commercial carriers like Boeing, SpaceX, and others.

The new, one-size-fits-all docking system has two major implications: one for diplomacy and one for security.

Space Race Ends in a Diplomatic Tie

Most immediately, it means that NASA will no longer be dependent on Russia for transport to and from the ISS.

Amid budget concerns and NASA’s decision to focus the majority of its resources on Mars, the US space shuttle was retired from service following its final flight in 2011.

Since then, NASA has relied on private couriers like SpaceX to deliver supplies, and on Russian Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to shuttle American astronauts to and from the ISS.

This arrangement is of course very symbolic, representing a new era of international cooperation following the nationalist competition of the Cold War space race. But, considering current events, this high-profile and historically charged rapport is still vulnerable to geopolitical pressures.

Moreover, while very symbolic, US-Russian Space Relations have not been the most symbiotic: In the past, the US paid Russia $63 million for one shuttle seat.

NASA’s new arrangement with private couriers and the competition it has encouraged have brought the cost down to about $20 million per seat.

Details of the Deal

What are the details of this “new arrangement”? Beginning in 2017, private companies like SpaceX and Boeing will transport American astronauts to the ISS aboard commercial crafts like the Dragon V2 and CST-100, respectively.

The two companies have been awarded a shared $6.8 billion contract to take charge of astronaut transport operations between Earth and the ISS ($4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX respectively), which covers a total of six astronaut transport missions to the ISS.

Space Pirates?

Less immediately, the new general docking standard may raise security concerns.

For now, the ISS can expect to see SpaceX and Boeing crafts with visits from classics like Russian and Chinese crafts. But, as humanity steps off of Earth and into the solar system, we can expect to see a huge proliferation of private crafts.

What measures are being developed to regulate docking access to the ISS and future space bases?

What organization (or organizations) will manage Space Security?

How do we go about creating such organizations?

This docking mechanism facilitates the future of commercial space flight. But, could it and similar mechanisms also facilitate the future of space piracy?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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