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While NASA Idles, Commercial Space Revs Up


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 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.

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

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