The head of NASA's manned flights told a Senate committee Wednesday that future trips to the International Space Station operated by private U.S. companies would save NASA money and bring millions of dollars to American enterprises.
Since NASA ended the space shuttle program, its astronauts have been hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, to the tune of nearly $63 million per seat. Last year, NASA struck a $753 million deal with Russia for 12 round trips to the space station. But the recent successful roundtrip flight to the space station by California-based SpaceX has given the agency hopes to resume flying aboard American aircraft as soon as 2015.
William Gerstenmaier, head of human exploration and operations at NASA, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that the agency "expects a cost reduction" aboard American spacecraft, "but it's too early to say what the cost reduction is."
"I believe the prices will be cheaper than what we have to pay for Soyuz," he said. The agency has planned to begin flying aboard an American company's spacecraft by 2017, but "some think they can provide a crewed flight earlier, in 2015."
Crewed flights aboard American-operated flights wouldn't just be good news for NASA, it could also be a boon for American companies.
"Every seat on the Soyuz has been sold, even as the price has increased over the years," said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut and president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "The market demand for similar American seats could be five to 10 times that of the Soyuz."
As the Russian government does now, American companies could sell seats aboard their spacecraft to astronauts from countries that want to send manned missions into space, said Mike Gold, testifying on behalf of Bigelow Airspace, a company trying to develop crewed spaceflights.
"We could help countries like Japan, which has had a robust human spaceflight program" but no manned spacecraft, Gold said. "Or we could help a country like Singapore, which would like to [develop a manned space presence] without breaking the bank. That's where we're going."
According to Gerstenmaier, future missions aboard commercial spacecraft would potentially last much longer than current missions aboard Soyuz craft, with astronauts staying aboard the space station for up to a year to "gain experience for the durations we'd need in space for Mars-type missions."
In fact, Gerstenmaier said he imagines a future where commercial companies operated most, if not all, American flights between Earth and the International Space Station, with NASA focused on further-flung missions.
"There's a role for commercial spaceflight in low-Earth orbit, and there's a role for us beyond low-Earth orbit. We need to keep doing all of these," he said.
NASA has said it plans to send manned missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.
Ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison applauded NASA's and the private industry's efforts, but the Texas Republican added that the government should have supported companies aspiring to send manned missions to space much sooner—and needs to not make the same mistake again.
"We are paying a heavy price for the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and the reason we're paying hundreds of millions of dollars is because … we never had the adequate support to plan ahead," she said.
In an ideal world, private industry would have been able to step in with manned missions immediately following the retirement of the space shuttle program.
"We knew this was coming … we know what the next mission is going to be," she said, referring to a manned Mars mission. "We don't know what we're going to be finding, just like we didn't know what we'd discover when we went to the moon."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com