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What do you see when you look up at the night sky? Perhaps a slender crescent Moon, maybe the bright planet Jupiter, or the constellation of Orion the Hunter striding across the sky. On a dark night when you are far from city lights, a thousand stars beckon while meteors slip silently across the vault of the heavens.

How far can you see? The dim light of the Andromeda nebula has taken more than two million years to reach the retina of your eye. Those photons set out on the journey across the galaxy long before modern humans existed on our planet.

We live in a limitless universe. With telescopes and space observatories we can peer into the heavens to investigate planets, stars and beyond. These time machines (telescopes) let us look back billions of years, to the early origins of the universe. And as a species, we are propelled by a primal urge to venture ever further.

A great new era of human exploration has dawned. Throughout all of human history less than a thousand people have ever travelled in space. But a generation from now, humans from dozens of countries and speaking many languages will be able to check this action off their bucket lists. These people will be referenced as the first space tourists. They’ll use space taxis to get out there and back, thanks to a dramatic change in the way NASA will do business.

Specifically, NASA is partnering with commercial firms to produce the next generation of vehicles to carry human passengers into Earth orbit and beyond.

One such partner is Boeing. As the 2015 State of Innovation report from Thomson Reuters makes plain, Boeing is by far the most active North American firm in Aerospace patenting, with four times as many applications in the last five years as their closest regional competitors, and a particularly dramatic upswing in activity between 2011 and 2014.

With this strategy, NASA has a fast-track solution for bridging gaps in the spaceflight capabilities, stimulating industry to invest time, money and effort in this grandiose endeavor. In fact, the organization’s made the bold decision to work with space industry heavyweights to shorten the development and certification phases for touring space, which must meet NASA’s pre-determined set of requirements. In other words, the space taxi will be a safe and reliable way to reach low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

“Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards.”

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Space, so near yet so Far

By one definition, space is only 60 miles away. Back in 1979 a visionary British astronomer, Fred Hoyle, quipped, “Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards.” Long before that, in the late 1940s, he had remarked that “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available … a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

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Astronauts in space

Thus did Hoyle correctly predict that the scientific exploration of space would greatly alter humanity’s perception of who we are and where we stand in the universe. But only 60 years later, space travel is to become a commercial enterprise: NASA is boldly going where NASA has not gone before. By contracting with private industry partners, the agency will open space to everyone, even tourists.

Innovation is a two-way process: NASA engineers learn about a company’s development and project management, while the agency’s technical expertise and resources are accessible to that company.

Navigating International Politics

Since 2011, NASA’s had a problem getting into space. It’s not a life and death matter, like getting Apollo 13 back to Earth, but it is serious. After the closure of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in that year, NASA had no astronaut transportation system to ISS. As a stop-gap measure to keep ISS occupied, the agency bought (and buys) seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The descent module lands somewhere in the remote deserts of Kazakhstan in central Asia.

Soyuz rockets have an excellent safety record, but its spacecraft was designed in the 1960s and is now hardly fit for purpose despite several upgrades. The shuttle itself has room for three crew members jammed into cramped seats. That’s why, following the retirement of the U.S. program in 2011, NASA launched its Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to bring on board private industry for providing routine access to space.

NASA’s CCP initiative is all about open innovation. It is based on entering partnerships with private industry to accelerate the rollout of safe, reliable and cost effective access to and from low-Earth orbits. NASA’s goal is to launch into space from American soil privately built spacecraft that can land in the U.S., thus eliminating the foreign policy nightmares of buying space transport from another country.

NASA is keen to keep the ISS going until 2024. Initially, the deal to ride on Soyuz was seen as an olive branch to reduce tension between the two superpowers. But those green shoots in space have withered due to issues on the ground. International tension following Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and Russia’s action in the Ukraine set off a series of American-led sanctions. And then there’s the cost: Russia’s ticket price $76.3 million for each passenger. For NASA, this was no longer a viable situation for the American space industry. So NASA seized the initiative to bring space travel back to America.

Spacecraft Design and Operations

The CCP delivers a Commercial Crew Transportation System by awarding final development and certification contracts to Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation System (CST-100) and to the SpaceX Crew Dragon. Each industry partner is tasked with the development of a safe, reliable and cost-effective spaceflight system, which it will own and operate.

For five decades of human spaceflight — from the start in 1961 of the first man-in-space program, Project Mercury, which ran six missions, to the retirement of the shuttle—NASA directed every aspect of project specification, implementation and management. The agency drove innovation, but with little input from outside. It owned the spacecraft and the operational infrastructure.

NASA has now unleashed Boeing and other partners to design a transportation system they think will best meet the agency’s highly demanding requirements. Innovation is a two-way process: NASA engineers learn about a company’s development and project management, while the agency’s technical expertise and resources are accessible to that company.

New Nasa Fleet to Fly Astronauts to ISS

By commissioning two independent transport systems from Boeing and SpaceX, NASA gains a new fleet of privately owned spaceships to serve the International Space Station. The selection of two partners in competition maximizes NASA meeting the program objectives, provides more options and flexibility for the agency throughout contract performance, reduces overall risk to the program and best ensures successfully accomplishing safe, reliable missions to ISS.

The new spacecraft are now undergoing rigorous testing of systems. Next off the launch pad: complex flight tests. Then the real thing: astronauts on orbital flights in a final stage of preparation for operational missions to ISS.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said, “It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle.”

Enjoy the Ride to the ISS

The innovative CST-100 spacecraft can carry up to seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, to low-earth orbit in some of the most comfortable seats known for travelling. Boeing’s “Sky Lighting” developed for its 737 interiors will add to a feeling of spaciousness. And, the pilot has back-up manual controls in case they’re needed.

The space taxi gently docks ISS autonomously, a robotic innovation that slashes crew training time. For landing on ground, the capsule uses a proven parachute and airbag system, allowing the capsule to be recycled up to ten times.

For the initial Commercial Crew transfer trips to ISS, Boeing has positioned Atlas V on the launch pad, a very reliable rocket for lofting flagship payloads into orbit. Boeing’s timeline calls for a suborbital abort test of CST-100 by February 2017. An unmanned orbital flight test is slated for April 2017. Flight AV-080, scheduled for July 2017, is an orbital test crewed by Boeing pilots. Another flight for the record books: the first Atlas V to launch humans.

Ultimately, NASA will have two separate spacecraft launch systems, CST-100 and Dragon, for low-earth orbit missions. NASA is permitting Boeing and SpaceX to provide space transportation to private citizens, companies and institutions in what is likely to become a new industry for the U.S. aerospace sector.

These pending advances from industry giants such as Boeing balance the finding, reported in Thomson Reuters latest State of Innovation, that Aerospace innovation, as measured by patenting activity, actually declined by 1.3% between 2013 and 2014.

Nevertheless, the foundation for future space exploration is being strengthened at research institutions worldwide—and often in centers of activity that might not be expected. A search of Aerospace literature indexed in Thomson Reuters Web of Science, for example, shows that research from the University of Michigan system, although constituting a smaller volume of papers than that produced by such Aerospace heavyweights as NASA and Caltech, actually wields the highest influence compared against world baselines for the field.

Space Tourism Takes off Too!

This is an exciting moment for citizen science. Space tourism is about to zoom away into clear skies. Boeing’s marketing partner for its space taxi experience is Space Adventures, based in Vienna. Its private clients train at Star City located near Moscow, the home of the Russian human spaceflight program.

On completion of the space flight training, private astronauts squeeze into the Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Here they live and work alongside professional astronauts for 10 days or more, circling the Earth every 90 minutes. There’s even the opportunity to extend the stay and conduct a spacewalk.

NASA and Boeing expect space taxis to set the private market on fire – by igniting rockets on launch pads. The space taxi defines a new future for space exploration. Henceforth, space is for all. And, Fred Hoyle’s “an hour’s drive away” becomes real.

So what will your travel agent offer a decade from now, and at what price? Thrilling trips, that’s for sure.

Consider these potential ads for future space travel:

  • Earn astronaut status in a suborbital flight to 62 miles above Earth’s surface
  • Experience weightlessness and fly around the cabin. Use the zero-gravity bathroom if you must.
  • Visit the Space Station and walk in space, gazing down at earthlings below

All of these are distinct possibilities in the near future. For those who take them, the journeys will be transformational – profoundly and fundamentally personal experiences that our ancestors could only have dreamed.

If you took such a trip, on seeing Earth from space, you would notice many things, like the blurred lines of country borders and the vast amount of water that comprises our planet. You would see first hand that our atmosphere is a fragile layer that separates humanity from the inhospitable, extremely cold environment of space.

When you look down from space at the blue oceans, you will reflect that life on Earth only left water and colonized land half a billion years ago.