Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the United States and NASA have had to rely on Russia and the EU to refuel and resupply the International Space Station. But yesterday saw the first commercial launch to the ISS by SpaceX – a private space flight company.
NASA plans to offer contracts to SpaceX and Orbital (another private company) to resupply the ISS on a long-term basis once they have proven themselves with a few one-off missions.
Nasa is attempting to offload routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry in a way similar to how some large organisations contract out their IT or payroll.
The carriage of freight will be the first service to be bought in from external suppliers; the transport of astronauts to and from the station will be the second, later this decade.
The US space agency hopes these changes will save it money that can then be invested in exploration missions far beyond Earth, at destinations such as asteroids and Mars.
Will the private sector eventually take over space travel and exploration from governments completely?