It’s been 40 years since NASA went back to the moon; 5 years ago they officially ended their shuttle program, and in recent years NASA’s budget has been severely cut to fund other government programs and initiatives. This may seem disappointing to those who envision a reality where space travel is not just possible but also affordable. But I have some good news for you: we are closer to that reality now then ever before. NASA was never created to explore space. They have definitely furthered space travel, and the technology they developed has been crucial in advancing the field of space exploration. But NASA was only created to show the world that America was capable of developing rockets and successfully landing humans on the moon during the cold war. “Old Space is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, completely top-down. Old Space is NASA, cautious and halting, supervising every project down to the last thousand-dollar widget. Old Space is Boeing, Lockheed, Northrup Grumman. Old Space coasts on the glory of the Apollo era and isn’t entirely sure what to do next.” - The Washington Post
We are now entering a new era of space exploration, New Space, which is the exact opposite of Old Space. The biggest change to New Space comes in the form of privately owned and operated space ventures run by wealthy billionaires and/or publicly funded projects focused on deep space exploration. The age of NASA as the forefront runner in space exploration is coming to an end, though the legacy it has entailed will continue on for decades to come. In the future, private companies are better suited to innovate in the area of creating and building technologies that will enable us to go further into space and eventually make it cheaper to send rockets and people into space, whether for commercial or private purposes.
So who exactly is privately developing and building rockets for space travel? Well, there are several companies doing this right now, but I will focus on 3 main ones because of their standing in the business and their ability to score big contracts with the government and other large aircraft companies. Perhaps most widely known is Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company within the Virgin Group. The founder and current chairman of Virgin Group (and Virgin Galactic) is Sir Richard Branson (net worth: $5.1 billion). Virgin Galactic’s mission statement, “the world’s first commercial spaceline”, captures the essence of what they want to accomplish. Their biggest project, SpaceShipTwo, is an aircraft capable of carrying 6 people and 2 pilots into space. They are almost done testing the shuttle, and have already signed up 700 people who are interested in going to space and have the $250,000 down payment required to participate. The rocket is expected to be operational later this year, though the company is not taking any chances after the disastrous SpaceShipTwo crash in October of 2014 in which one pilot died.
SpaceX is another company founded in 2002 that has the ultimate goal of “enabling people to live on other planets.” Founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, Elon Musk (net worth: $ 13billion), was co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and co-founder of PayPal. SpaceX has the most prestigious achievements, including being the first private company to safely return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit and deliver payloads to the International Space Station, a feat that only governments had previously accomplished. SpaceX is currently providing regular cargo resupply to the International space station for NASA. While their end goal is similar to that of Virgin Galactic, SpaceX is currently doing research and innovation in rockets, designing reusable rockets that are both reliable and powerful. SpaceX has been awarded many contracts by NASA, including a recent $2.6 billion commercial crew contract to fly American astronauts. SpaceX also has its own private launch facility in Brownsville, Texas that it acquired in 2014, and it is projected to be ready for launches by 2018.
Blue Origin is the last private company I want to mention because of its rivalry with SpaceX. Jeff Bezos (net worth: $46.7 billion), founder and CEO of Amazon.com, founded Blue Origin with the hopes of developing technologies to enable private ventures into space. The main project/vehicle that Blue Origin is working on is the New Shepard, which demonstrates Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL). VTVL for rockets is a crucial first step to reusable rockets, and Blue Origin has had many successful test runs of the New Shepard. Like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, the New Shepard will be able to carry 6 people into space and back and is expected to be ready for launch sometime this year.
There are many other private companies doing research and innovation in the fields of space exploration, including Orbital, Sierra Nevada, XCOR and Vulcan Aerospace. While groundbreaking research is being done by all of these companies, the private sector is a battleground that rewards the risk-takers and achievers while wrecking the efforts of more cautious and less optimistic projects. “Many of the New Space enterprises are still in the PowerPoint stage, with business models built around spaceships that haven’t yet gone to space. A bold attitude and good marketing aren’t enough to put a vehicle into orbit. The skeptics among the Old Space people will say to the upstarts: Where’s your rocket? How many times have you launched? Can you deliver reliably? Repeatedly? Safely? We put a man on the moon — what have you done? If there’s one thing that New Space has going for it, it’s that Old Space is in trouble. Old Space and New Space turn out to be symbiotic. New Space companies need NASA contracts, and NASA needs New Space companies to pick up the agency’s slack.” – The Washington Post