Beyond NASA: The push to privatize spaceflight

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Not far from bustling Los Angeles International Airport and the glistening office towers of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other aerospace giants sits a cluster of squat buildings that may hold a key to the future of manned spaceflight.

Inside the main facility, whimsical trash cans sport nose cones and rocket fins. A Segway electric scooter shares an expansive shop floor with segments of rocket bodies. In one corner, inside a "clean room," engineers piece together a rocket motor. Welcome to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Think dotcom trailblazing with Buck Rogers technology. This upstart and others like it represent the potential of privatized spaceflight. "By the middle of this century, if it's not overwhelmingly private, we've really failed," says Elon Musk, who heads the company.

At a time when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) struggles to return its aging shuttle fleet to service and realign itself to implement President Bush's blueprint for sending astronauts to the moon and beyond, several companies and interest groups are pursuing their own vision for putting humans into space more cheaply. "If we drive down the cost of transportation in space, we can do great things," Mr. Musk insists.

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The goal: to loft people and cargo at one-tenth the current cost. Building reusable rockets is only the first step. Industry sources say NASA, too, will have to buy services and hardware - at lower cost - from a broader cast of aerospace characters than the traditional players. And while taking the lead in high-risk human exploration of space, the government also needs to build an infrastructure in orbit - such as the space station - from which private companies could launch missions and conduct research.

"This is an optimistic vision," acknowledges George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington, D.C. "But when you look at manned spaceflight at a broader level beyond the president's space-exploration vision, that's when it really gets exciting."

Even the president's directive to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 could help privatize spaceflight.

"We want to go about space exploration in a more sustainable way" than the Apollo program did, says Brant Sponberg, who heads NASA's awards program. "We want to bring along other sectors of America with us; this shouldn't be a NASA-only activity. My ultimate hope is that when we're sending robotic landers to the moon early next decade, there might be some robotic landers that don't have the NASA insignia on them."

Slowly, that scenario is beginning to unfold.

In May, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration published guidelines for granting permits to companies wanting to test reusable suborbital rockets. The move follows the FAA's February publication of draft guidelines governing crews and passengers in private spacecraft. The FAA's authority to regulate the industry - first via guidelines, later with binding regulations - came through the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which was signed into law in December.

The measure represents a significant step forward, says Carole Flores, manager of the licensing and safety division in the FAA's office of the associate administrator for commercial space transportation. It allows for government oversight without forcing the companies involved to first endure a drawn-out process of crafting formal regulations.

Ms. Flores says her division had been anticipating some form of involvement in the human-spaceflight business since Dennis Tito bought a trip aboard a Russian rocket and became the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001. Studies indicated tourism would be the prime market initially for space travel outside government exploration efforts. But "we had a hard time convincing some people that this was real," she says.

Then last fall, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne became the first private manned craft to reach space. That put space tourism "right up in front of people," Flores says.

In February, a dozen players formed the Personal Spaceflight Federation, which aims to set industry standards and help shape federal policies on privatized spaceflight. Among the founders was Peter Diamandis, whose X Prize Foundation amassed the $10 million purse that prompted the privatized space race that Mr. Rutan won.

The Ansari X Prize itself has morphed into the X Prize Cup, envisioned as an annual event to encourage more players to continue their efforts. "One vehicle does not an industry make," says Diane Murphy, executive vice president of the X Prize Foundation.

Following the X Prize model, in May Mr. Sponberg's NASA division unveiled a $250,000 prize for the first team to devise a practical way of converting lunar soil compounds into breathable oxygen. The award carries a June 1, 2008, deadline. Earlier this year, the office announced four $100,000 prizes for advances in beam-power and space-tether technologies. He says money has been earmarked in the proposal for next year's budget to begin building toward the biggest prizes. These prizes aim to encourage large private efforts that might include robotic missions to the moon.

To some analysts, tourism is the fastest way to capitalize on personal spaceflight. Rutan has licensed his technology to Sir Richard Branson, who aims to send his first tourists to briefly slap the rim of space on a craft similar to SpaceShipOne in 2008. So far, his company, Virgin Galactic, reports that nearly 100 people have made reservations for tickets selling for $200,000 each.

Some studies have suggested that at the right price, the market for space tourism is large, notes Greg Autry, a spaceflight enthusiast and business school lecturer at the University of California at Irvine. But those studies may overstate the case, at least for suborbital flights.

"Although this will clearly attract a lot of 'extreme' folks, they will likely be surprised by the intensity of this ride," he says. "There is virtually no time to gather your wits and stomach to enjoy the view before you go right back down."

That may explain why other players in the personal-spaceflight industry are setting their sights beyond suborbital trips.

Robert Bigelow, who owns Budget Suites of America, is putting his money into inflatable modules larger, lighter, hardier, and less expensive than those making up the International Space Station. Ironically, the technology was developed at NASA, then killed by Congress, at which point Mr. Bigelow bought the patent rights, notes William Schneider, a former NASA engineer who originated the concept and is now a collaborator on Bigelow's project.

Although much is made of using the modules to build an orbiting hotel, Bigelow Aerospace also is banking on pharmaceutical companies' interest in conducting biological experiments in microgravity. Those experiments have been drastically curtailed in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster in 2003. Dr. Schneider says Bigelow Aerospace is hoping to pick up the slack. The first test flight for a one-third scale module is slated for launch in February from Russia, he says.

Meanwhile, Bigelow has put up $50 million for America's Space Prize. The goal is to launch and return an empty vehicle capable of holding five people in an orbit some 249 miles above Earth, then repeat the task 60 days later with five people on board for two orbits. The deadline: Jan. 10, 2010, the year NASA's remaining shuttles are slated for retirement.

That's the brass ring Musk's company hopes to grab. He's charting a course to get there - first, launching his Falcon 1 unmanned rockets with military or commercial payloads into low earth orbit, then developing an advanced Falcon 5 capable of hurtling heavier payloads higher.

The effort has drawn NASA's attention. In early June, after a Falcon 1 successfully fired its motors on the pad at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, NASA officials at the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston inked an agreement with Space Explorations Technologies. It provides opportunities for exchanging information, people, hardware, and gives the company access to NASA facilities.

What drives Musk's vision? Establishing permanent bases on the moon and a self-sustaining civilization on Mars. "Of anything we could do, it's the most significant as far as perpetuating the species," he says. "If we really want to understand the nature of the universe and our place in it, we must become a spacefaring civilization."

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