With at least three high-profile failures during the past year of private space flight, it seemed at times as if the entire project was destined for the historic dustbin. Separate disasters at SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp, and Virgin Galactic, which included a fatality, sent shockwaves of doubt through the public. After all, if these companies couldn’t get people into orbit with their billions in funding, what was the point in trying?
Fortunately, this race to space shows no signs of slowing down. According to industry research group NewSpace Global, investors have pumped over $10 billion into the industry over the past ten years. Numerous captains of industry, from Virgin Galactic’s owner Richard Branson to Google co-founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, have publicly committed their efforts (and fortunes) to realizing the dream of mass space travel.
From the standpoint of potential backers of private space flight, several criteria remain critical to making it a worthwhile investment:
- Traveler safety
- Public appeal
- Technological innovation
If all of these criteria were to be met reliably, there’s no doubt that in addition to wealthy investors, thousands or even millions of ordinary people would also fund mass space travel. Think A Space Oddyssey, Kickstarted.
Companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are already turning a profit, pulling in billions in contracts from clients as diverse as NASA and Google. Musk’s company is primarily focused on delivering supplies and, soon, astronauts, to the International Space station. In exchange for helping Google establish a new initiative on the ISS, SpaceX was awarded a $1 billion investment.
With business plans as diverse as colonizing Mars and conducting short trips out of Earth’s atmosphere, the major players in private space flight have major ambitions.
They also have an enterprising spirit. As celebrated Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has pointed out, “We’re still in that early stage of flight.” And companies are lowering the costs of space flight on a daily basis, getting to rates 20 percent lower than NASA for lifting raw mass into space.
With the shutting down of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and the decision by the Obama administration to essentially call it quits on government-funded space travel, the private sector has had to rely on its own innovation and older technology to kickstart development.
Much of the rocket technology in private space flight is based on the old Soviet-era Soyuz rocket. However, the SpaceX Falcon9, its flagship spacecraft which will soon be ready to launch humans into space, demonstrates what a little human ingenuity, and a lot of cold hard investment dollars, can deliver.
The private sector also has NASA in its corner. With the shuttering of the Shuttle program, NASA has instead devoted billions of its funding to helping private firms develop new propulsion technologies. SpaceX now even has a 20-year lease on Launch Pad 39A at the famous Cape Canaveral, which launched Neil Armstrong and other astronauts into space.
The automotive and aerospace industries would never have succeeded if they weren’t opened up to the average consumer. But unless private space flight can begin demonstrating a consistent record of safely launching humans into space, it will never build enough trust within the population for broad support. In a sense, it has to reach the stars before it can even get off the ground.
Chris Hadfield has more to say on this matter, noting that the technology, and thus the safety features, are still “infantile… but you have to start somewhere.”
In truth, NASA and the Soviet Space Program have both had their share of tragedies, not least of which being the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. And it can be expected that, while private space flight is still in its early stages, some mistakes will have to be made in the process of developing the new technologies.
At the moment, the private space flight industry is dominated by companies owned by billionaires, and mass space exploration still seems like a long way off. However, these wealthy space entrepreneurs have demonstrated their dedication to the cause and appear willing to see things through.
Helped along with strong partnerships with NASA and the other international space agencies, private space flight can truly become the next frontier for mankind, and allow our species to leave the boundaries of Earth, forging into parts unknown.