The rise and rise of new space

This week in the world financial centre that is New York a meeting of investors and space technology development companies quietly made the commercial exploitation of space a little bit more realistic.
While Virgin Galactic is a public relations cheer leader there is a range of companies pushing ahead with their own ideas with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) close behind Virgin in terms of publicity.
Rocketplane Kistler (Rpk), a company with the same goals as both SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, is developing its Kistler(K)-1 rocket and the XP suborbital spaceplane. It attended this event to present itself to investors with president Randy Brinkley doing the meet and greet.
The promise RpK, SpaceX, Virgin and their cohorts hold out is the realisation of all of us being able to go where only a few highly trained professionals have gone before. Watching the Apollo astronauts go to the Moon people everywhere could imagine that the year 2001 would be a universe of space hotels and lunar excursions.But back then government policy and new budget priorities and a lack of any commercial exploitation efforts those dreams died.
Only now almost forty years later are we on the verge of a new dawn for space travel? Certainly last week at the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium a bunch of announcements gave the impression of progress for the New Space industry.
The companies that make up this New Space, as they like to call themselves, industry are, again, SpaceX and RpK, Bigelow Aerospace, Xcor Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, AirLaunch, Transformational Space, Benson Space Company, a UK entrant, Starchaser Industries, TGV Rockets, which gained US government funding care of its senator, Senator Inhofe, Masten Space Systems, Andrews Space and Technology and a company I had never heard of before and can’t find the website for either, SpeedUp.
The announcements were that the company developing the Dreamchaser for Benson Space, Spacedev, had done a deal with aerospace behemoth Lockheed Martin for a feasibility study for launches on a man-rated Atlas V, that Xcor aerospace had won a $99,935 US Air Force Research Laboratory contract for a suborbital demonstrator vehicle and Bigelow Aerospace has plans for operating a commercial space station.
And in the background RpK and SpaceX are making progress with the $500 million NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation services demonstration programme efforts. If all the claims are to be believed early in the next decade there could be two or more suborbital tourism companies, at least one privately managed space station and three or more commercial space transportation companies serving it and the International Space Station and possibly other low Earth orbit destinations.
The dream that emerged from the 20th century’s space race between communism and capitalism could be realised. But that is a big could. It could all just as well go horribly wrong, and by that I include the deaths of test pilots and astronauts.
Thinking about how significant new machines rapidly changed our world the history of these ‘disruptive technologies’, to use the jargon, is usually replete with failure and the success comes when a range of other factors fall into space including the legal and the cultural.
Well we now have the US commercial spaceflight laws in place, the US Federal Aviation Administration rules published, investment in spaceports across several US states and most significantly in New Mexico, a significant cultural event in the success of SpaceShipOne winning the $10 million X Prize and behemoths of US aerospace Lockheed Martin and Boeing are getting involved – Boeing was one of the organisers of the investment event this week.
So for now I’m expecting the space industry to become a more dynamic and interesting place for the next few years. Things like export control laws, accidents, will certainly be described as set backs but if there are more X Prize like successes, maybe the sky really is no longer the limit?

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