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While NASA Idles, Commercial Space Revs Up

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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NASA may have lost the urgency of its 1960s moon race years, but today’s commercial space sector looks to be recapturing some of that fervor. The various players in America’s private space race were out in force at an event on Friday, May 2 at New York City’s historic Explorer’s Club, each one promising major breakthroughs that will arrive within the next year or two.

SpaceShipTwo test flight

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo flies under rocket power during an April 2013 test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic claimed the first passengers will take to the skies on its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft in October or November. Company sources have been have been making similar promises for a few years, but recent successful test flights lend credence to this time frame.

Competing suborbital carrier XCOR plans the first flight tests of its Lynx vehicle this year. “It’s coming together,” Khaki Rodway of XCOR told roughly 200 space enthusiasts at the event, called “Blast Off! The Future of Spaceflight.” Both Lynx and SpaceShipTwo will take passengers on an arc to the edge of space without making a full orbit around Earth, providing a brief experience of weightlessness and a view of the planet below. The cost of a ticket to ride is slated at about $100,000 and $250,000, respectively.

Meanwhile, a number of companies are also chasing the more challenging, ambitious goal of orbital spaceflight. The big fish in the commercial space pond, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is aiming to become the first private company to launch NASA astronauts. The firm has already started ferrying cargo to the International Space Station on its Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets. A modified Dragon could carry people to orbit as soon as 2017 under a partnership with NASA.

Other companies, including Sierra Nevada and Boeing, hope to fly astronauts to the space station as well. “We love competition,” professed SpaceX’s John Couluris. “That’s what commercial spaceflight is about.” Sierra Nevada plans to start flying astronauts on its Dream Chaser vehicle in 2017 as well, company corporate vice president Mark Sirangelo said.

Even secretive Blue Origin, the commercial company started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, which is notoriously reticent in discussing its plans, let slip some details at the event. The first flight test of its latest rocket should fly within the next year, said Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy. And Blue Origin plans to start selling tickets to passengers “hopefully soon” is all Alexander would say.

The list of private space pioneers is still longer. New plans are afoot for Virginia-based firm Space Adventures, which brokers deals for rich, private citizens to fly to orbit aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. British singer Sarah Brightman has signed on to become the eighth space tourist to make a roughly weeklong sojourn to the International Space Station through such a deal, reportedly paying upwards of $35 million. Furthermore, the company is planning to expand its offerings to include a loop around the moon aboard the Soyuz (no landings, however). “We’ve got a couple of clients under contract and are working with the Russians” to arrange such a flight, said Tom Shelley of Space Adventures.

The momentum behind commercial spaceflight is evident in the number of NASA astronauts who have left the agency for the private sector. Many of the above-named companies boast former astronauts among their employees, and the industry advocacy group The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is headed by ex-astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. Retired astronaut Ken Ham, another attendee at the Explorer’s Club, is planning to make the switch soon to the Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing inflatable space modules. The migration to commercial space is only natural, Ham points out: “The space shuttle shut down and we got a glut of experienced spaceflyers to go help these companies out.”

Even the most bullish proponents of the “new space” commercial arena admit that the industry faces challenges, however, with none larger than what to do when accident strikes. Spaceflight has always been risky, and no one expects commercial space travel to be immune. That’s one of the reasons The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is launching a new organization called Earth Plus to raise awareness of the industry and influence public opinion in its favor. “There will be failures one day,” Alegria says. “We don’t want to be looking for friends then.”

Ultimately, the motivations behind many in the private space arena are as lofty as their trajectories. While there was plenty of talk of profits and markets on Friday, there was more discussion of “democratizing space” and opening up new routes to the heavens for everyone who wants to go. The mood was summed up by Brienna Henwood, who represents a spaceflight training center in Pennsylvania called NASTAR. “Each of us is searching for something beyond ourselves,” she said, “something more.” Let’s just hope those of us without hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare will be let in on the action, too.

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. singing flea 7:51 pm 05/5/2014

    While private space flight sounds like a good idea to the corporate world, it will as a matter of practicality, limit any benefits to only the wealthy at the expense of the masses as usual. I am not opposed to private industry in space, but these private companies will depend on NASA funding to make regular trips to space profitable and at the same time exploit billions of dollars spent on taxpayer funded NASA research to ferry rich people on fantasy adventures. Their contributions to the science community will be negligible as any discovery that has value will immediately be patented and made off limits just like Monsanto does with genetic research on plants.

    One of the greatest benefits to mankind, of a taxpayer financed space industry like NASA is the free flow of data and information that gave the world a new view of our solar system and the universe, and at the same time, giving inventors and scientist a quantum leap in new technology. Letting private industry take over the quest will never result in such a bonanza of open and readily obtainable knowledge as NASA has provided over the decades.

    There is a need for capitalism a need for government. Funding for space research and science should be a collective effort and the benefits should be available for all scientists, not just the ones under contract with big business. If NASA is going to fund private space flights, NASA should retain all rights to the intellectual knowledge gained, just as any company insists that is under contract with another.

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  2. 2. tangle01 3:58 am 05/6/2014

    the above comments is very wondeful.we can also learn more from it,thanks.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:29 am 05/6/2014

    Nice, but private companies lack the funds and long-term commitment to follow the space program after NASA budget cuts.

    Maybe the reason of Fermi Paradox is that aliens have short-sighted governments cancelling space program?

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  4. 4. cataylor559 12:09 pm 05/6/2014

    It is easy for a aircraft to reenter the atmosphere starting a zero mph. Lets see what happens commercially when it reenters at 17,000 mph.

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  5. 5. QRIUS1 1:57 pm 05/6/2014

    The backers of Citizens United stand to make yet another fortune through pressuring their Congressional hacks to vote down more money to further “idle” NASA. I’d rather have NASA doing the space work, but it’s starting to look as if NASA will be out of business if corporate America has its way. STEM in OUR COUNTRY is making a big mistake by letting corporate money take charge. And, who but those same backers can afford $100K to $250K for a ride ? The cost of a ticket probably represents only a tiny piece of the corporate savings just from tax dodges. We should make them pay their fair share of operating OUR GOVERNMENT and then, just maybe, any citizen could afford the opportunity to take a space ride.

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  6. 6. David Cummings 7:10 am 05/7/2014

    One of the reasons NASA stands idle is because there is a lack of strong public support for the things NASA does best. And the lack of support might come from the lack of commitment on the part of NASA and its leadership in previous decades.

    Although the ISS continues to be a strong accomplishment — and the space telescope program of long term benefit to all mankind — the failure of NASA to follow through on the moon is (in my opinion) a big reason for vast public apathy towards the organization.

    All that time and effort to get to the moon and then… nothing.

    When we stopped going to the moon — and furthering our presence on the moon — we doomed NASA to a shrinking share of the public budget. In my opinion.

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  7. 7. Dr. Strangelove 11:05 pm 05/8/2014

    Clara

    The $35 M ticket price to ISS is absurd. Even $100 K and $250 K to experience weightlessness and see earth below are too expensive. An ordinary wide-body aircraft can provide weightlessness by accelerating downwards at 1 g. Want to see earth below? Ride a pressurized helium balloon. It can take you 30 kilometers up. That’s three times higher than commercial airliners. You can see the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. And the best part, all these at a cost of ordinary plane tickets.

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  8. 8. stu64bit14nm4k7in 4:47 pm 05/9/2014

    The hope is of course, that as the price of solar gets lower than coal, an economic boom or industrial revolution will return to the developed world. 1% the price of 1977 solar power already, a really big industrial revolution, would be an off planet economy, a third industrial revolution. With big silicon about to move from IT to energy, trillions could flow to space colonization. Big silicon, was raised on the Jetsons, while big carbon, seems to have been raised on the Flintstones. 1815 to 1825 steam engines, 1915 to 1925 internal combustion engines, 2015 to 2025 solar power, once a technology reaches mass manufacture, it bootstraps itself. Yes there is only one Earth, but there are 9 other planets, 36 Moons, a million asteroids, a billion comets, and a free gigantic fusion reactor, with the deserts blooming with solar panels, what’s to stop us.

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  9. 9. Wayne Williamson 3:04 pm 05/10/2014

    Dr S. has it pegged. The reason alternatives have been searched for is the basic “get it to space” cost is something like 10k per pound and it hasn’t changed, not even with the space shuttle.

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