Even that won't necessarily generate a dramatic new upsurge in launch demand for SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, the companies supplying it. But it can start moving the government out of the equation, Gerstenmaier says, as more customers appear with station-bound payloads and—eventually—passengers to conduct research there.
“At some point there may be enough of a commercial market generated independent of NASA,” Gerstenmaier says. Beyond the ISS end-of-life in 2028, microgravity research probably will be conducted on a commercial orbital facility, he says. His directorate already has an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to install a small inflatable structure on the station to support that company's plans to build stand-alone inflatable research facilities in orbit.
SpaceX also has plans to use Dragon as the basis for commercial “Dragonlabs,” and there are other private proposals as well. “Our job is to use [the ISS] to essentially provide the proof that that market is there,” Gerstenmaier says.
Cost-conscious lawmakers are resisting NASA on funding multiple vehicle developments, while agency managers say it is in the government's interest to stimulate competition now because it will hold down costs later.
“We think it's good for everybody, the private sector and the government,” says Phil MacAlister, director of NASA's commercial spaceflight development effort. “And not just in terms of cost. It's also good in terms of safety. We see these companies all trying to outdo each other in terms of safety and performance.”
SpaceX posted a $54 million “paid-in-full standard launch price” for the Falcon 9 in 2012, and carries 24 flights of the new rocket on its manifest through 2017, not counting the ISS missions with Dragon. So far, most of its revenue has come from NASA for the Dragon flights, and it remains to be seen what will happen to the overall cost of launch-to-orbit on traditional one-flight rockets as the competition does (or does not) develop.
Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who holds an MBA as well as multiple engineering degrees, calculated for a 2011 International Astronautical Congress paper that “existing market incentives are insufficient to bring about human space development by private enterprise, even under very optimistic assumptions. The ISS logistics market is too small, no single competitor can expect to capture it all, the rate of return is low in relation to other investments having less risk, and in any case that market is temporary.”
Griffin's analysis was based on a hypothetical human-rated traditional system able to deliver 9,000 kg to the ISS, developed at a cost of $700 million. Reusable launch vehicles could dramatically change the equation, in theory, and some of the new space entrepreneurs—SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bezos at Blue Origin and Mark Sirangelo at Sierra Nevada—are working to build launch vehicles that are at least partially reusable without the huge turnaround costs NASA experienced with the space shuttle.
At least two commercial reusable spaceplanes are gearing up to begin suborbital flights with paying passengers in the next year or two. Ultimately the lessons they learn may play into reusable commercial flight to orbit, with all that implies in terms of market growth.