It’s a whole new space race. No, I’m not talking about NASA’s plans to go back to the Moon and then to Mars. This time, private enterprises are the ones leading the charge and doing what I feel is one of the most exciting endeavors of our time: privatizing space. NASA and the Russian Space Agency aren’t going to be the only ones up there anymore, and that’s exciting. There are several companies that have plans to go where no man has gone before, aside from space veterans such as Arianespace, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin who simply hurl satellites into orbit. The new companies are set to occupy different niches in the space industry, particularly space tourism, orbital transportation services, and even orbital construction.
Ready to experience zero-gravity? Well, the folks at Virgin Galactic might just have the spaceship to take you there. Called SpaceShipTwo, the design of this very-soon-to-be spaceship has carried over directly from the design of SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize for a private spaceship to make two trips above 100 km in one week.
The new design will feature a 110 km apogee for a longer tourist zero-gravity experience, which will supposedly be safe. In any case, there are enough volunteers to go on these flights: 65,000 applied for the first 100 tickets. The first of these spaceships is to be called the VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise. Ironic then, that Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) refused to be on the first batch of riders.
EADS Astrium is also developing their own tourist space ship, though they’re a little behind ScaledComposites, the makers of SpaceShipTwo. Also in the works by Space Adventures Ltd. and Constellation Services International are plans to offer circumlunar tourist flights. The price? $100,000,000.
Orbital Transportation Services
Perhaps not as attractive to the media is this sector of the space industry, what NASA calls Orbital Transportation Services. This, rather than space tourism, though, is what promises to be the largest commercial venture in space. Fueled by the retirement of the Shuttle fleet and the need to supply the International Space Station (ISS), NASA has awarded two huge contracts to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation to spur development. NASA is looking for four different areas of service (yes, I’m taking this from Wikipedia):
- External unpressurized cargo delivery and disposal
- Internal pressurized cargo delivery and disposal
- Internal pressurized cargo delivery, return and recovery
- Crew Transportation.
SpaceX is developing its own family of rocket boosters, Falcon, and spacecraft, Dragon, in order to be able to provide those four services. The company received $278 million from NASA, as well as a future contract for supply runs to the ISS pending the successful testing of the Falcon rockets.
Orbital Sciences, on the other hand, already has successfully developed rockets, and is now upgrading their Taurus rocket to make the Taurus II, which will launch their Cygnus spacecraft, designed to provide the four services. They received a bit less than SpaceX from NASA, a paltry $170 million.
Last but not least, we have orbital construction. Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space station modules which could be used to supplement existing stations, or possibly create whole new ones. The idea is novel, and surprisingly, these modules could possibly be safer than the conventional modules used today. The idea is that flexible hulls wouldn’t puncture as easily, especially because Bigelow Aerospace is lining their modules with “several layers of vectran, a material twice as strong as kevlar” (from Wiki again). The company plans to build their first space station by 2010, named the CSS (Commercial Space Station) Skywalker. Anyone else sense a renewed Star Trek vs. Star Wars war? Four week stays would cost $15 million, and the possibility to lease this station (or another possible future one) for $88 million a year exists. Interestingly enough, Bigelow Aerospace has reserved a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in order to put its space station in orbit.
I’m personally really excited about all of this. Within the next four years, a revolution is going to break out in the space industry. Hopefully, the industry will profitable enough that even more companies start developing their own plans. Some other sectors of the industry that still need to be filled include orbital maintenance and orbital cleaning (no, not wiping the windshield; getting rid of non-operational junk that might be harmful to other satellites). All I know it is, when it becomes affordable enough for me to go to space, I’m hopping on the first VSS that I see.