There was a time when a dream of going to space meant military service or a PhD, cut-throat competition and working the bureaucracy. But all of that is about to change, and faster than you may think. Ships capable of ferrying the average citizen into low-earth orbit, commercial space stations, colonies on other planets; it’s everything we’ve been dreaming of and it’s due to start arriving in 2015.
According to insiders, 2014 is going to be a banner year for the private space industry, full of test flights and trials, as fledgling companies work furiously to establish dominance. The line between public and private has begun to blur, and it means big potential profit for a company that can mobilize quickly. In summer 2013, NASA strategists released a document listing 10 different areas, everything from cargo transport to space mining, where the agency could save money by partnering with private corporations. The Commercial Crew Program, the agency’s public/private partnership to develop ships to transport US astronauts to the International Space Station, will dole out $700 million in 2014 alone.
Space may be vast, but those entrepreneurs taking part in the new space race know that they have a limited amount of time to stake their claim and carve out their positions in this new market. Battles have already broken out over the right to exclusive use of the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. Spaceport America, the world’s first exclusively commercial launching facility, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has already secured two tenants.
Humans, and not just a few, are going to space, and these are the companies that want to take us there.
6 Honorable Mentions
Launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is yet another example of what happens when cyberspace meets outer space. The company is currently developing both orbital and suborbital spacecraft, but still seems to be in the early stages. Though making less news than its contemporaries, one should never count out the brainchild of the man that normalized shopping from home.
Golden Spike Company
Though founded in 2010, not much was heard from this group until 2012. That said, the the Golden Spike Company has teamed up with some real heavy hitters. Its Board of Directors is flush with ex-NASA bigwigs, Scaled Composites (owned by Northrop Grumman since 2007) is helping them design their ships, and their Board of Advisors includes one Michael Okuda, set designer of Star Trek fame. Golden Spike's goal is to be the interplanetary rail line to the Moon, and with a crew like that, just might do it.
Founded in 1999, XCOR is doing things a little differently. The company is focused on building space planes, ships that both take off and land horizontally. While this requires more fuel than a traditional vertical rocket, it would reduce the amount of debris created by each lift-off, and allow a faster turnaround for XCOR’s ships (up to 4 flights a day, they say). Using their Lynx II ship, currently in the testing stages, XCOR plans to offer tours to the edge of space for $95,000 a ticket. Their long-term plan is to develop a completely reusable orbital craft. XCOR's owners claim their lack of internet millions has slowed development.
5 #5 - Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems
Historically known for its work in custom electronic systems and avionic solutions, the Sierra Nevada Corporation got into the space game in late 2008 when it bought SpaceDev (most famous for engineering the engine that would allow SpaceShipOne to claim the Ansari-X Prize). Since the acquisition, SNC Space Systems has taken off running. Currently under development, Dream Chaser, the company’s reusable spacecraft, looks a lot like the now decommissioned NASA spacecraft Atlantis. And that must be a good thing, because to date the company has received close to $330 million from NASA for development of the ship alone (not to mention the money it’s receiving for other proposed services).
4 #4 - Virgin Galactic (ft. Scaled Composites)
It’s hard to talk about private space travel without talking about Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson. And that’s exactly how he wants it. Fewer people, however, have heard of Scaled Composites. The company made a splash in 2004 when it claimed the Ansari-X Prize for its spacecraft SpaceShipOne, winning the $10 million challenge by bringing three people 100km above the Earth’s surface.
In 2004 the company's funding came primarily from Paul Allen, millionaire Microsoft co-founder. Then Richard Branson came into the picture. Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, under the auspice “The Spaceship Company,” have been hard at work on SpaceShipTwo since 2006. The craft is currently in the late stages of testing and should be offering suborbital flights to eager tourists this year. Virgin Galactic has since licensed the design of the craft exclusively, leaving Scaled Composites to work with others in the industry.
3 #3 - Bigelow Aerospace
Founded in 1999 by Robert Bigelow, best known as the owner and founder of Budget Suites of America, Bigelow Aerospace wants the moon… literally. Shortly after its founding, the company licensed the designs for an inflatable space capsule called TransHab from NASA, which had scrapped the project due to costs. Over the next decade Robert Bigelow poured over $200 million of his own money into research and development of the capsule. In 2013, that investment finally bore fruit; the company received a contract from NASA for $17.8 million to test their improved capsule, now called Bigelow Expandable Activity Modules (BEAMs), on the International Space Station.
But all that’s just small potatoes. Bigelow has announced that it plans to open the world’s first commercial space station sometime between 2015 and 2016, effectively making him the first real estate owner in space. Seeing the possibilities in light-weight, expandable living and working quarters, Bigelow Aerospace has announced an interest in lunar mining, contingent on being able to secure property rights.
2 #2 - Orbital Sciences Corporation
Orbital Sciences Corporation, established in 1982, is a veteran in the private space game.
The company boasts having launched 132 satellites in the 23 years since it launched its first Pegasus rocket in 1990. Though it has struggled with fluctuating stock prices and the need for periodic layoffs in the past, things look like they may be turning a corner. On January 12, 2014 the OSC debuted it’s new Antares rocket, launching the Cygnus supply freighter, and successfully docking it with the International Space Station. This represents the first of eight resupply missions NASA will pay OSC $1.9 billion to perform. OSC is also one of a handful of companies NASA has contracted to help them design a new space shuttle.
1 #1 - Space X
Founded in 2002 with the express purpose of taking people to other planets, Space X is probably one of the best known private space companies, known as much for its charismatic CEO, billionaire PayPal and Tesla founder Elon Musk, as it is for its results. Unlike many of its competitors, Space X currently has three working rockets in its fleet, all of which are capable of re-entry.
In May 2012, Space X’s Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station as part of a resupply mission. Shortly thereafter, the estimated value of the company doubled to $2.4 billion. In 2015, Space X is scheduled to begin bringing passengers to and from the ISS. With over $2 billion in NASA contracts already under its belt, as well as numerous contracts with countries and companies to launch satellites using their rockets, Space X has clearly claimed a dominant position early on.
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