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.

The Obama Administration wants to play tough with the Russian government over its invasion of Crimea by imposing sanctions targeting the assets of key Russian officials. But Russia has struck back by squeezing the place where it has great leverage over the United States—the space program. 

Following his earlier suggestion that NASA astronauts use a trampoline to reach the International Space Station, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, one of the officials targeted by U.S. sanctions, upped the ante this week. He announced via his English-language Twitter feed that the Russian space agency has no plans to continue cooperating with NASA on the ISS after its current obligation expires in 2020. He also said Russia would stop shipments of its RD-180 rocket engines, and as we’ve noted before, the U.S. relies on these engines for military space launches. 

How Badly Can Russia Put the Squeeze on NASA?

In the not-too-distant future, when private space is an established industry, different carriers will provide distinctive customer experiences for space tourists—just as Jet Blue and Delta airlines provide different inflight amenities. At least that’s what Boeing is banking on with its recently unveiled interior designs for the CST-100 space capsule. The CST-100 (CST stands for Crew Space Transportation) is Boeing’s gumdrop-shaped candidate for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. The seven-seater capsule is intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and later, perhaps, to tourist destinations in orbit, such as the Bigelow inflatable space hotel

Boeing Tries to Build a Ship Space Tourists Won’t Hate