Space research in the private sector
Contrary to popular belief, NASA and the European Space Agency are not the only entities involved in space exploration. Although these entities are funded with tax payers’ money, there are many organizations, corporations, and non-profit bodies that are also involved in the development and deployment of spacecraft for the purposes of exploring, or exploiting the opportunities offered by space. In this article we will take a closer look at some of them, starting with
Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame, Space-X is headquartered in Hawthorne, California. The company’s main focus is aero-space engineering and space transport, mainly through using its in-house developed Falcon range of rockets.
Space-X is engaged in the development of fully re-useable rockets, and its first fully privately funded mission took place on September 28th, 2008, when it launched Falcon -1, a liquid fuelled rocket into earth orbit. Subsequent missions included the launch, and successful recovery of Falcon -9 in December of 2010, and the first private mission to the International Space Station with the Dragon spacecraft in May of 2012.
In December of 2013, Space-X successfully delivered a satellite, SES-8, into geosynchronous orbit, and in February of 2015, the company delivered the Deep Space Climate Observatory into a beyond-earth orbit.
Rejoicing in the motto "Gradatim Ferociter", which is Latin for "Step-by-Step, Ferociously", this company, set up in 2002 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is also focused on reusable launch vehicles, by developing technologies and techniques to allow rockets to land vertically upon return to earth from sub-orbital flight.
Blue Origin has successfully built and launched a test version of its New Shephard vehicle in 2015, during which the craft attained an altitude of 93 500 metres (307 000 ft) at a velocity of Mach 3. Although recovery of the rocket stages failed during two previous test flights, the (unmanned) crew compartments were recovered intact.
Recent developments however, seem to have ended Blue Origin’s plans to introduce commercial sub-orbital flights to the general public. Instead, Blue Origin is now engaged in the development of rocket engines for supply to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a major American launch system operator.
Dennis Anthony Tito
Of the 415 persons that have reached orbital space, Dennis Tito is remarkable only for the fact that he is the first person ever to have paid for the ride- a whopping 20 million US dollars, no less, and then only because the Russian Mir Soyuz program needed the money.
On April 28, 2001, Tito lifted off as a paying member of Soyuz TM-32, for a nearly eight-day visit to the International Space Station, during which he is said to have performed several scientific experiments that in his words, “were beneficial to his business.”
In 2013, Tito announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars, but admitted soon after that the idea was impractical without significant support and funding from NASA, which is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon, since in the words of Robert D. Cabana, who was an administrator of NASA in 2001, and who declined to have anything to do with the Tito affair "...We will not be able to begin training, because we are not willing to train with Dennis Tito."
During the three years of its existence, Mircorp, which was founded in 1999 by several space entrepreneurs in collaboration with the Russian space program, proved to be a major stumbling block in the way of the development of the International Space Station.
By privatising, and commercializing the ageing Mir Space Station, Mircorp achieved some notable successes, among which are several privately funded firsts, such as:
- Creating the first commercial lease agreement in respect of a manned, orbiting space station in December of 1999.
- Launching Soyuz TM-30, which was the manned expedition to a space station that was entirely privately funded. The mission lasted from April 4th, 2000, to June 16th, 2000.
- Launching the first privately funded resupply mission to a space station in April of 2000, and the first privately funded EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity), in May of 2000.
Mircorp came to a flaming end in 2001 when the decrepit Mir space station was allowed to fall into the Pacific Ocean.
Based in North Las Vegas, Nevada, this privately funded start-up focuses on the development and commissioning of expendable space habitats. Founded by Robert Bigelow in 1998, and funded primarily through his private fortune derived from the Budget Suites of America hotel chain that he owns, Bigelow Aerospace is the sole commercializing agent of NASA’s expendable space habitat modules through three separate agreements based on the Space Act.
Before merging with Alliant Techsystems in 2014, Orbital Sciences Corporation, which was based in Dulles, Virginia, designed and successfully launched rockets that placed satellites into low earth-, and geo-synchronous orbits for military and corporate clients.
Apart from developing human-rated space systems for earth orbit,
Orbital Sciences Corporation also designed and supplied satellite subsystems and other space exploration-related items to several government agencies and research institutions. These services included air-launched rockets to place satellites into orbit, missile defence technologies, and remote sensing devices for inter-planetary missions.
UP Aerospace, Inc.
Founded in the late 1990’s by a former employee of Lockheed-Martin, Jerry Larson, and based in Denver, Colorado, this privately funded company specializes in the provision of low-cost launch opportunities for corporate, military, and educational payloads with their SpaceLoft XL rockets. In 2004, the Civilian Space eXploration Team, of which Larson was also a member, was the first privately funded, amateur group to successfully launch a rocket into space.
World View Enterprises, Inc.
This is a privately funded company operating out of Tucson, Arizona, and which is focused on lifting passengers and scientific payloads to an altitude of 20 miles (32 kms) in a pressurised, space-rated capsule suspended from a balloon. From this altitude, six passengers and two crew members will be high enough to view the curvature of the earth.
In June 2014, World View shattered the then world record pertaining to the highest parafoil, which is an advanced form of parachute, flight conducted up till then, when the company deployed and navigated a parafoil down from a height of 50 000 feet.