With private companies launching their own spaceships and designing their own orbital stations, it’s the dawn of commercial spacefaring. We talk to people involved in that development and we explore the world’s first commercial spaceport. That’s this week – in Space.

May 25, 2012: the first commercial spacecraft is about to berth with the ISS. A private company achieves something only national agencies did before: an orbital payload delivery.
Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO:

“Reliability has actually been our primary goal, but then an important secondary goal is to figure out technology innovations, advancements that effectively reduce the cost of space transport, and we have a large number of those. The really huge breakthrough that’s needed is rapid and complete reusability, just like aircraft.”

As the ISS crew, including ESA flight engineer Andre Kuipers, berthed and unloaded the Dragon capsule, one question remained: can the California-based SpaceX company make a profit by recovering and reusing spaceships and carrier rockets?

So far, SpaceX has been 50% funded by NASA, which spends hundreds of millions dollars stimulating the development of commercial orbital transport.

Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator:

“By 2017 private companies are going to take responsibility for getting NASA astronauts and others to the International Space Station and other low-Earth orbit destinations. And that’s a big deal.”

For decades, NASA has relied on private companies to build vehicles and other tailor-made components for its space program. Now the White House plans to outsource all simple orbital tasks to private sector. NASA will focus on researching into breakthroughs in space exploration, leaving commercial companies to design and operate their own spacecraft.

Barak Obama, U.S. President:

“By buying the services of Space transportation, rather than the vehicles themselves, we can continue to ensure regular safety standards are met, but we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies – from young startups to established leaders – compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.”

In Europe, there are several private-public partnerships, limited so far to satellite telecommunications – but the role of the private companies is expected to grow as the sector matures.

Andrés Gálvez, ESA General Studies Programme Manager:

“It’s normal that initially this field of activity has been new, required very significant government support. But at some point it’s strong enough so that it can depend on companies looking for opportunities and looking for models where they’re not only dependent on institutional funding.”

Private American companies benefit from NASA’s scientific legacy by taking over abandoned projects – such as inflatable space habitats, which were developed by NASA until Congress cancelled the TransHab program in 2000.

Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace uses the same principle for its own commercial space station.

Michael Gold, Director of D.C. Operations & Business Growth, Bigelow Aerospace:

“NASA really only conceived of the idea of expandable habitats. This is a problem, frankly, that is plaguing the agency – “PowerPoint engineering”. They come up with an idea, and then Congress gets in the way and prevents it from coming to fruition. So NASA came up with the idea, but it really was left to us to implement, certainly, whole of the details and the engineering.”

The company has launched two prototypes to demonstrate how inflatable modules provide vast living space while protecting the crew from radiation and debris.

Bigelow plans to cooperate with SpaceX and other transporters to send private customers to orbital habitats for a fraction of the ISS rental cost: a goal simplified by there being no regulations restricting orbital activities.

Michael Gold, Director of D.C. Operations & Business Growth, Bigelow Aerospace:

“It’s very easy right now. In as much as there is no, technically, on-orbit authority for any entity within the federal government. You have the FAA/AST [Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation], which is the commercial space wing of the FAA, regulating what goes up and what goes down, but currently there is no regulatory regime on orbit.”

So far, space operations are governed by rules based on the UN conventions agreed in the 60s and 70s. In particular, this space law assigns liability for any damage caused by a space object, private or not, to the launching state.

André Farand, Head of Launcher and Exploration Matters Office, ESA Legal Department:

“I think you can see the involvement of private sector in two ways, first as contractors to space agencies – it’s what we see now with the International Space Station where a private company brings its own launcher for cargo at the station. So there, I would say, the space agencies keep a certain control of the activity. Now, with private individuals and companies having the means to go to outer space with their private launcher, they will, I believe, in 10-15 years develop their own scenario for space exploration. And this, I would say, is an activity which will still be regulated by the state, because in the end the state is responsible, liable for any damage, but it will be up to private individuals to decide what kind of scenario, what kind of operations they want to conduct in space.”

In Colorado, yet another abandoned project is making an impressive comeback. The Dream Chaser was first designed by NASA as a lifeboat for an emergency return from a space station. Not it is being aerodynamically tested to become a space taxi – a reusable vehicle to carry people to and from low earth orbit.

James Voss, Former astronaut, Vice President, Space Exploration Systems:

“This configuration, this shape, this lifting body came from the Russian heritage design called BOR-4. This was seen and analyzed by the NASA Langley research centre, and they decided this vehicle had some very nice characteristics. It’s very stable, it’s inherently stable, so when you return through the atmosphere it doesn’t require a lot of control to keep it flying properly… So they did thousands of hours of work on it. When our company decided to pick up a vehicle to be and use it, we thought it was not very smart to start with a clean sheet of paper – let’s use something NASA had already put a lot of effort and research into… We went to them and asked for the information, the results of the testing, and they provided that, as they should, as a government agency, to allow private industry to try to take the value of the money that’s been invested by the government, and take advantage of that.”

Expected to fly in 2014, the Dream Chaser will be launched vertically and will glide to return. It will be like the Space Shuttle, but safer, thanks to its top-rocket takeoff, non-toxic fuel and built-in launch escape system.

SOT Mark Sirangelo, Chairman, Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems:

“What we see ourselves doing in this programme is being able to work on developing a system for LEO [low Earth orbit] transportation that will be run by commercial companies like us, with a lot of help and assistance from NASA, that would allow NASA to focus in on more challenging and difficult missions – perhaps going on an asteroid, or going back to the Moon, or maybe someday to Mars.”

Along with comprehensive research and expertise, the Dream Chaser has received 100 million dollars of public funding from NASA to stimulate commercial space transportation.

Andrés Gálvez, ESA General Studies Programme Manager:

“So far space agencies have been sort of taking by the hand the companies and telling them exactly, specifying what they wanted to achieve, and how they wanted to achieve it; now we’re moving to a model, at least in certain sectors, in which we can define a certain target, an objective, and then let a company, industry, work towards this objective.”

The future of space tourism – another promising field in the private space sector – takes shape in the New Mexican desert, where the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport is getting ready to service suborbital flights. Designed by Foster+Partners with environmental sustainability in mind, Spaceport America borrows plenty of restricted airspace from the adjacent military missile range.

Christine Anderson, Executive Director, New Mexico Spaceport Authority:

“This is a terminal and a hangar, all in one facility. The two hangars are on either side, and they can house up to two carrier craft which is called White Knight Two… …The business model is very interesting, because we up until now have had state money, taxpayer money to build up the spaceport. By 2014 we need to be totally self-supporting. So the way we’re doing that is to diversify our business model. We’ll get some of our revenue through our space launch customers, but the other part will be through tourism and visitors that come and experience Spaceport America.”

The Virgin Galactic company has chosen the spaceport for its home base: the carbon composite spaceplanes will lift tourists 100 km above the Earth, where space officially begins. A few minutes of unforgettable views and weightlessness will cost a relatively modest 200,000 dollars. Hundreds of people are already on a waiting list for a ticket, with the first customers expected to take off in less than two years.

Stephen Attenborough, Commercial Director, Virgin Galactic:

“We knew that there were many people around the world that dreamed about going to space, have expected to be able to go to space, but 40-50 years after man first went to space we were still in the situation where just handful of government employees had the opportunity. It was a really, sort of, classic Richard Branson business, I suppose, of looking into something where there was demand that was being badly served, and we thought that perhaps we could do something about it.”

The tourist vessel will start its ascent attached to the carrier mothership before separating and continuing the flight using its own rocket engine. In the future, such suborbital flight could become a common means of global transportation.

Christine Anderson, Executive Director, New Mexico Spaceport Authority:

“Eventually, I would expect, there’ll be many more spaceports, because ultimately we’d like point-to-point space travel, just like we do in airline industry today.”

Commercial spacefaring is expanding, but there are still many challenges to overcome before private companies can make a profit by providing reliable, affordable transport and accommodation in space.

Denis Loctier

Denis Loctier is a senior Euronews science and nature correspondent, producer and presenter of the "Ocean" documentary series. Since 2001, he has produced short TV documentaries on more than 150 international research projects and covered a variety of other topics, from international politics and military conflicts to economy and tourism. He holds a double PhD degree in philology and information and communication sciences.

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