Months ago, the Russian government asked me to head a panel on spaceflight at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (watch it here). But that was before the crisis in Ukraine, which changed relations between spacefaring companies and nations drastically. The theme of the forum was “A World in Transition,” and as we’ve seen as the diplomatic crisis continues, that includes the way spacefaring nations cooperate in space. The way things are going, NASA may be left out in the cold.

President Vladimir Putin warned the United States of a “boomerang effect” of sanctions against Russia, and the space panel seemed to make his point. Following American sanctions against Russia, NASA has halted much of its cooperation with the country, and hundreds of executives of U.S. companies sat out the forum this year. In SpaceX’s place, tellingly, was Susmita Mohanty, the CEO of Earth2Orbit, an Indian private space startup. The new Indian government is keen on building Russian relations. I was the only American on the panel—and in the room.

If all goes according to plan, Hamid Hemmati’s plan will fall flat. 

Hemmati is the project lead on the Two Dimensional Planetary Surface Landers, a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) project that is in the planning stages. These flat probes would resemble solar panels, but with a flexible electronic body. Each lander would be less than a half inch thick and just over three feet on each side—small enough you could stack 10 to an orbiter. Sensors on board the probe would scan the terrain of a moon or planet below, giving insight into places no NASA lander has dared go. And then these two-dimensional explorers could deploy to the surface, providing a cheap way to reach some of the most difficult terrain in the solar system. 

"The most geologically interesting places are also the most hazardous to land," Hemmati says, "so typically NASA and ESA [the European Space Agency] don’t dare go to these places, because it doesn’t look good if you lose a half a billion dollar lander." 

Cosmic Concept: Exploring the Solar System With a Fleet of Flat Landers

In the future of commercial space travel, will there be multiple major providers or one top dog?

A: [It depends] on the decision that the government makes in August. There are three competitors who are in a fairly mature state of design. [Editor’s note: Those three are Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada.] So you’re looking likely at one or perhaps two or perhaps all three being given a substantial amount of money to go and mature their systems even further. The thinking on the street right now is that there’s going to be one and a half or two full awards. Two full awards is easy to understand. The government would underwrite the development of two contractors all the way through to demonstrated human spaceflight to low earth orbit.

Now the next question is: [If] Boeing doesn’t get an award, what is it going to do? I’ll just give you the answer. The truth is, Boeing doesn’t know. The government’s portion of the investment is pretty substantial. Without that, we would have to raise that capital from private sources.