08Jan2013

Cautious Optimism Required for Commercial Space in 2013

In te last few years private space firms have made huge strides in providing services to suborbital and orbital destinations. While these efforts should be encouraged and applauded - it is still necessary to temper excitement with caution. Space is a dangerous business and the first company to think they can do no wrong is the next company to file for bankruptcy. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

In the last few years, private space firms have made huge strides in providing services to suborbital and orbital destinations. While these efforts should be encouraged and applauded, it is still necessary to temper excitement with caution. Space is a dangerous business and the first company to think they can do no wrong is the next company to file for bankruptcy. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

During the past few years, private space companies have made leaps and bounds toward matching the accomplishments of what only nations had accomplished prior.

If this trend holds, these firms could make even greater strides in the coming year. However, if history teaches us anything, it is that space is a very risky business, and today’s champion is filing for bankruptcy tomorrow. A recent article appearing on Space.com highlighted some of the events to look out for from commercial space firms in the coming year. So, what does 2013 possibly hold for NewSpace?

The current lion of the commercial space arena is, without a doubt, California-based Space Exploration Technologies, more commonly known as “SpaceX.” SpaceX had some anomalies crop up with both its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft during the first resupply flight flown under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract in October of 2012.

SpaceX has become the company to watch with its rockets and spacecraft conducting mission after mission with an almost perfect track record. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has become the company to watch with its rockets and spacecraft conducting mission after mission with an almost perfect track record. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX made history just five months prior when it became the first private firm to have its Dragon spacecraft travel to, rendezvous with, and be berthed to the International Space Station. After completing its mission, it safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, a trait unique among cargo spacecraft (all other current cargo craft burn up in Earth’s atmosphere).

SpaceX currently plans to fly the second mission under the CRS contract in March of 2013. If SpaceX can get the kinks worked out and make travelling to the ISS a regular affair, it will go a long way toward having the company send astronauts to the orbiting laboratory—an effort the company is keen to accomplish.

SpaceX has a lot of ambitious plans on the horizon, from developing a rocket which has a first stage that can return back to its launch site to a manned base on the surface of Mars. In essence SpaceX is working to reinvent what is possible in terms of space flight.

One of the three awardees under NASA's Commercial Crew integrated Capability is Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser space plane. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

One of the three awardees under NASA’s Commercial Crew integrated Capability is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

SpaceX is one of three companies that were awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap). The other two entrants, Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane, by-and-large will spend most of 2013 testing their offerings for future crewed operations.

Boeing plans for a test flight of their CST-100 in 2015, and the Dream Chaser is not slated to launch until 2016. So, for the time being, in terms of orbital missions, 2013 will belong to SpaceX.

SpaceShipTwo, seen here underneath the White Knight Two carrier aircraft is set to launch this year. Photo Credit: The SpaceShip Company

SpaceShipTwo, seen here underneath the White Knight Two carrier aircraft, is set to launch this year. Photo Credit: The SpaceShip Company

If NewSpace is known for anything, it is the promise to open up space to “the rest of us.” With little doubt, the leader in this field is Virgin Galactic, which intends to ferry paying customers into suborbital space on board SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and its carrier aircraft, White Knight Two.

The vehicles are descendants of the famed SpaceShipOne and White Knight One, which shook up the aerospace world in 2004 by winning the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, a contest held to open space flight to everyone.

SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X PRIZE and opened the door to space tourists who wanted to travel in space in 2004. Photo Credit: Scaled Composites.

SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X PRIZE and opened the door to space tourists who wanted to travel in space in 2004. Photo Credit: Scaled Composites.

Completing the objectives of the Ansari X PRIZE (and beating the altitude record of NASA’s X-15 space plane to boot) caught the eye of Sir Richard Branson, who entered into an agreement with Scaled Composites to produce a fleet of space planes for the new “Virgin Galactic” arm of his corporation.

SS2 and its carrier aircraft are part of The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Branson’s Virgin Group and Scaled Composites.

The development of these craft encountered a setback in 2007 when an explosion killed three workers at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Since the heady days of SpaceShipOne, the project has stalled somewhat.

As of December 2012, the space plane has conducted 23 glide tests and is scheduled to begin ferrying customers into suborbital space by the end of this year. The price tag is a substantial $200K per flight. Numerous celebrities and movie stars including Angelina Jolie, William Shatner and Ashton Kutcher have purchased flights.

Of the companies above, the two to watch in 2013 are SpaceX and The Spaceship Company. The reason for this is simple: they have done something. SpaceX has proved detractors (this author included) wrong, time and again, and Virgin Galactic’s offering is based off of the success that was SpaceShipOne.

In this day and age, it is easy to show well-illustrated PowerPoint presentations and illustrations, and then make bold claims about what a company is “going to do,” but until they actually do something, that’s all there is—words and PowerPoint rockets.

Having said that, the firms that have yet to achieve need to be supported, to a certain extent. All too often companies like the Rotary Rocket Company and Kistler Aerospace have held out their hands for more and more funding, but produced little.

So, if anything, 2013 should be considered the year of cautious optimism. Making bold predictions about what will happen, all too often leave one looking like Dick Morris, when he stated that Governor Mitt Romney would win the 2012 presidential election in a landslide.  Source: America Space

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