Business takes one small step into space

The test of a privately funded space-station prototype last week opens new frontiers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some 120 miles higher than the International Space Station orbits, an alternate vision for spaceflight has arrived.

The new kid on the cosmic block is Genesis 1, a diminutive prototype for what could be a new generation of inflatable, commercial space stations, orbital hotels, or even living quarters and labs for the moon or Mars.

The module, which has the silhouette of a 14-feet-long, 8-feet-wide blunt sausage, lofted on a Russian rocket last week. The Genesis may be small, but it should not be underestimated. Its successful launch and deployment add an important dimension to efforts to open the final frontier to Everyman, analysts say.

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Genesis 1 "is incredibly significant," says George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space-advocacy group in Washington. "This is the only real, funded project that's trying to create a destination in space privately, as opposed to the other folks, who are creating private launch vehicles."

The experimental craft is the brainchild of Robert Bigelow, a motel magnate and head of Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas. Mr. Bigelow's habitat effort uses technology licensed from NASA. As the agency looks ahead to the moon and Mars, some engineers foresee the possibility of incorporating Bigelow-style inflatables into a lunar base.

Indeed, it's been an active year for space entrepreneurs and states that want to attract business from space-minded donors.

In May, NASA culled six finalists out of some 20 companies bidding to take part in the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS). COTS is a $500 million effort to nurture fledgling commercial rocket companies, with an eye toward using their rockets to resupply the space station after the space-shuttle program ends in 2010. In a statement Friday, agency officials said they were "extremely pleased with the quality of the proposals they received."

Later this summer, NASA officials are expected to pick one or more winners. Some compare the effort with the early days of airplanes, when the US Postal Service helped nurture the airline industry by contracting with carriers to fly mail across the country.

Meanwhile, new "spaceports" are starting to sprout across the country – at least in long-term development plans, if not always in steel and concrete. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave a green light to turn a former US Air Force base at Burns Flat, Okla., into that state's first spaceport. One of its early tenants is expected to be Rocketplane Ltd., based in Oklahoma City. The company plans a series of test flights for its rocket plane, which is designed for suborbital flight. The company hopes to begin flying passengers in 2008.

Farther south, New Mexico officials say they hope to get approval from the FAA by the end of this year to build a $225 million spaceport near Upham, N.M. Sir Richard Branson, whose company, Virgin Galactic, plans to launch its first suborbital spaceliner in late 2008 or early 2009, agreed last year to lease the port for his operations.

For all the activity, however, the number of privately funded launches has been few – a reminder of how tough the business can be. The most notable achievement was from designer Burt Rutan, who won a $10 million prize in 2004 for launching two manned suborbital flights within two weeks. In March another craft, Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 1 rocket, failed on its maiden launch.

"Going into orbit is far more difficult than suborbital flight," Mr. Whitesides says. For the thrill of a few minutes at the edge of space, the craft needs to reach speeds only three to five times faster than the speed of sound. The space shuttle, by contrast, reaches speeds some 25 times faster than sound. "The amount of energy you need to do that and the dangers you face increase dramatically" for orbital flight, he points out.

Yet incentives appear to be falling into place. In addition to NASA's COTS program, Bigelow is offering half of a $50 million prize to the first company to successfully launch a rocket capable of carrying seven people into orbit by 2010. The ability to dock with a future Bigelow habitatmodule in orbit – perhaps a larger, improved version of the Genesis 1 – would be a big plus.

Some see a bright future for space inflatables. Larry Toupes, who heads the advanced projects office at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says he foresees a couple of broad options for future module design. Perhaps lunar living space should come as a prefab module: "You land and turn the lights on." Or "it could be inflatable," he adds – arriving as a payload, ballooning out, and becoming additional volume for living or storage.

For now, it will be enough for fledgling rocket companies to get their hardware off the ground.

"It's a wave that's just beginning to build," Whitesides says. "Most companies have not tried to launch anything yet. The true test comes over the next two to three years, when more launch companies will be building, testing, and launching their rockets."

Whether they can drive down the high costs of launching payloads or people and develop innovative technologies to do it are "still an untested proposition," he says. "But it's absolutely critical" if efforts to expand human activities in space are to succeed.

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