In classic science fiction, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) stations were, at one time, a mundane reality for the transfer of goods and people onto spaceships far too large to land on Earth. Over the last few years, it seems that such science fiction will once again become science fact.
Even the names of the companies involved have sci-fi names: SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Virgin Galactic, just to name a few.
Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, and other sci-fi authors probably smile knowingly from the other side, having seeded the clouds of the future with their own ideas about what was possible, even back then.
As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, Boeing is currently building the next generation in spaceships, the CST-100 Starliner. Modelled after the Apollo space capsules, the Starliner is a little big bigger and can be reused up to ten times. Furthermore, it will be capable of landing on solid ground, using parachutes to slow the craft and airbags that deploy moments before it hits the ground, safely absorbing the energy of touchdown.
It wouldn’t do much good to design a 21st century spaceship without designing a 21st century space suit to go with it. These blue suits are lighter, slimmer, and loaded with space-age technology to provide optimal safety and comfort for crew members. They provide arm and shoulder joints that help maintain freedom of movement when the suit is pressurized. To top it off, there is a zip-on, zip-off helmet with compact headgear that looks strikingly similar to what fighter pilots wear.
That’s all well and good, but just exactly how is all of this going to bring in the next space age?
The approach of NASA and the private space companies seems to be ‘build it and they will come’. The hope is that, as various pieces of the Commercial Crew program are put in place, a market will emerge for the services offered.
One of the biggest barriers to all of this is the timeline in which this can be done. NASA is known to move slowly on these projects, often running behind.
To be fair, that’s not entirely NASA’s fault. There are a lot of other government agencies involved, and multiple layers of bureaucracy. On the other hand, private companies aren’t hampered by bureaucracy like NASA is.
This makes it possible for a company like SpaceX to have a viable commercial LEO station in place within a decade, along with low-orbit shuttles and crew. After the first station is established, and all the kinks are worked out, a second one will be built and deployed much more quickly, followed by a third, and so on.
Once it is recognized that LEO space transportation is capable of handling the transportation of goods and people, demand will grow quickly.
After the first-generation LEO technology matures, and costs are reduced, lower pricing will attract even more business, and with it, the new space age will be in full swing. It will be a much shorter step from that to building space stations throughout the solar system where research and testing can be conducted, and possibly even the mining of asteroids can begin.