Monday, February 4, 2013

A Short History Of New Commercial Space

While I don't claim to have the whole story behind the new commercial space effort, I did start to follow it in spring 2004.  I think some of the 'old guard' of spaceflight are trying to discredit the new companies.  Some of the attacks leverage peoples' ignorance on how these companies got their start.  So, here's a layout of the history of new commercial space.

Mike Melvill and SpaceShipOne
Now its 'new' commercial space because NASA and the US Military have contracted with commercial companies to launch satellites into orbit since the beginning of the space race.  Those were cost plus contacts.  Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas were among these companies, and they made up the establishment.   In 1996 the X Prize put set up a competition for the first company to send 3 humans to suborbital heights twice in two weeks with the same craft.  I have to say that back then the X-Prize foundation set up shop at the St Louis Science Center.  Such a feat was not done by anyone including NASA and Roscosmos.  That may sound strange, but orbital flight and flights to the moon were more important than suborbital flight in the 1960's space race.  We're talking manned missions here.  This would be a coup for reusable spacecraft.  In 2004 Scaled Composites won.  Its SpaceShipOne did 3 space flights that year.  Mike Melvill was one of the pilots and was the first commercial astronaut pilot.  The first was a test flight while the other two were for the prize.  Instead of sending up 3 people, they had the pilot and the equivalent weight of two other bodies.  SpaceShipOne and its mother ship WhiteKnight became the first totally reusable launch system since the X-15 and its B52 mother ship.  After the win, Richard Branson contracted with Scaled Composites to make SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo thus forming Virgin Galactic.

Armadillo's Pixel
In that competition there were several teams and some have gotten some momentum and contracts.  Armadillo Aerospace went on to win in the Northup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge level 1 after the X-Prize.  They also have paired up with Space Adventures to provide a suborbital experience to tourists.

Of course, Space Adventures was the company that started the space tourism with Dennis Tito the International Space Station in 2001.

Masten Space Systems competed with Armadillo Aerospace in the Lunar Lander Challenge.  They managed to win the level 2 prize.  Now they are pursuing reusable suborbital launch rockets demonstrating VTVL technology.  NASA has long used sounding rockets for research since the V-2 rocket.  Those were single use rockets.  NASA has been experimenting with these reusable rockets from both Armadillo and Masten in the last couple of years to present.  The benefits of such vehicles are obvious.  They supply multiple missions.  I think of Masten and Armadillo as a type of rocket company that is contracted by other rocket and/or space companies rather than catering to the public.  These guys seem small, but they are not to be underestimated.  Once they mature the technology, space will never be the same.

SpaceX Dragon
Other companies sprung up with the X-Prize momentum.  Space Exploration Technologies started in 2004 and had a preliminary design of their Dragon capsule and a family of rockets known as Falcon.  They were going after the cost plus launch companies and a cheaper way to launch to orbit.  At this time they received no government moneys.  It wasn't until the X-Prize was won that NASA seriously looked at the new companies. XCOR came up with a space plane called Xerus around 2002.  Now, they are touting a smaller suborbital space plane called Lynx.  If and when the Lynx flies, it will be the first fully reusable commercial suborbital space plane in a single stage.  Now XCOR has plans to use the old Space Shuttle landing strip in Cape Canaveral for the Lynx.

Of all these space companies, one really is in a league of their own.  Bigelow Aerospace makes inflatable space stations.  They started in 1999.  Their design was based on some inflatable space modules ideas from NASA.  In 2006 and 2007, they launched two test modules that were successful, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.  Now NASA has bought a small inflatable module to attach to the ISS and taken up there by SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft.

What's next for space competition?  There a current competition, the Google Lunar X-Prize.  This started in 2007.  Watch these competitors.  The idea is to put a rover or probe on the surface of the moon.  Yes, commercial space is looking at the moon even if NASA is not.  If all goes according to pattern, one or two teams will spearhead through and land taking the prize.  Then contracts will emerge from NASA and other space companies.

NASA Administrator Bolden congratulating Musk after COTS demo
When NASA got interested in this New Commercial Space, they started with a program that was designed to check out then new companies capabilities.  This program was called Commercial Orbiting Transportation Services (COTS).  It started in 2006 with SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler.  SpaceX proved their worthiness but Rocketplane Kistler was another story.  It failed and put a black mark on commercial space.  In its place, NASA elected Orbital Sciences.  This company started in 1982 with the advent of the Pegasus air launched rocket.  It seemed to be a bold attempt at making access to space cheaper at the time.  Orbital still operates and sells launches with Pegasus and with other more traditional rockets.  Orbital has had some setbacks.  Now its fixing to launch its new Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rocket to satisfy COTS.  Now NASA has Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts with SpaceX and Orbital.  They also are hosting a competition for development of hardware for commercial companies to transport Astronauts to orbit in their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.  COTS, CRS, and CCDev are the programs that give money to the competing companies so far.

Now for two humble space companies.  In 1998, UP Aerospace was founded.  Their launch vehicle is a small suborbital rocket.  They have scored some NASA and DOD contracts.  They have been launching from Spaceport America in New Mexico since 2006.  In 1977 the concept of an all volunteer lighter than air company was imagined.  Out of that meeting came JP Aerospace.  It may be the oldest commercial space company that was not part of the establishment.  They have launched many balloon missions to the edge of space.  They have even launched some rockets from their balloons.  Their ultimate goal is to create a ground to orbit system using airships and a lither than air station.  It sounds wacky, but to me it seems more plausible than the space elevator concept.  To their credit, JP Aerospace made and flew the highest dirigible ever to fly called the Tandem in 2011.

Well, that's the start of the New Commercial Space.  It started with just dreams and private money and now NASA is helping out here and there.  New companies are still being made and the market is likely to grow.  Deep Space Industries wants to mine asteroids;  Golden Spike wants to sell you a ticket to the moon; and Stratolaunch wants to air launch medium sized rockets.  These were formed in 2011 and 2012.  This is history in the making.  This is rocket science and rocket business.  I don't know which is more daunting.