The Private Spaceflight Decade: How Commercial Space Truly Soared in the 2010s, Space

The Private Spaceflight Decade: How Commercial Space Truly Soared in the 2010s

A lot has happened in the past 10 years.

Historians may look back at the 2010s as the decade in which commercial spaceflight really started taking off.

Private companies are doing a lot more in the final frontier today than they were 10 years ago, including ferrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), landing and reflying rockets, and manufacturing products off Earth.

Since 2010, and especially since 2013 or 2014, “it has been an enormous change — a sea change, almost,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a nonprofit trade association. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Private cargo flights galore

Let’s start with those robotic ISS resupply missions, which NASA has funded through a series of commercial cargo deals. SpaceX has flown 19 contracted missions to date with its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, with the first coming in October 2012. Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rocket made their first fully operational run in January 2014 and have racked up 11 more launches since then. (Both companies suffered one cargo-mission failure; an Antares exploded on the pad in October 2014, and a Falcon 9 broke apart in flight in June 2015.)

About half of those Dragon-Falcon 9 missions have featured landings of the rocket’s first stage, showcasing one of the important trends that SpaceX pioneered in the 2010s: the recovery and reuse of orbital hardware by a private company.

SpaceX first notched a booster touchdown during an orbital flight in December 2015. Since then, the company has pulled off nearly four dozen additional landings, many of them coming on specialized ships at sea. SpaceX routinely reflies these first stages, too, often multiple times.

And the Dragon capsule is reusable, and increasingly reused, as well. For example, the two most recent SpaceX resupply missions, which launched on July 25 and Dec. 6, respectively, featured Dragon spacecraft that had already made two trips to the orbiting lab.

Such activity is key to SpaceX’s long-term vision. The company aims to slash the cost of spaceflight enough to make bold exploration feats economically feasible. Indeed, Elon Musk has repeatedly stressed that he founded SpaceX back in 2002 primarily to help achieve one particularly ambitious goal: to colonize Mars.

SpaceX has already lowered the cost of getting to space considerably. The company currently sells launches of the workhorse Falcon 9 for $62 million and the newer, more powerful Falcon Heavy for $90 million. Those rockets can loft 50,265 lbs. (22,800 kilograms) and 140,660 lbs. (63,800 kg), respectively, to low Earth orbit (LEO), according to SpaceX’s spec sheet.

That works out to about $2,720 per kg to LEO for the Falcon 9, and $1,410 per kg for the Falcon Heavy. For comparison, the cost to LEO for NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiters was about $54,500 per kg, according to a recent report by Harry Jones of NASA’s Ames Research Center. (SpaceX is also widely acknowledged to be considerably cheaper than its competitors in the commercial sector, but comparisons are tricky because those other companies generally don’t publish their launch prices.)

Another company, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, also began routinely landing and reflying rockets in the 2010s. Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle has performed 11 successful touchdowns to date, with the first coming in November 2015. The most recent iteration of the reusable New Shepard has flown six such missions. To date, these test flights have hauled experiments to suborbital space and back for 100 customers, Blue Origin representatives said.

Rocket Lab is yet another private launch provider that broke new ground in the past decade, pioneering dedicated missions for small satellites via its 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron rocket. The two-stage Electron first lifted off in May 2017 and now has 10 flights under its belt, the last nine of which have been completely successful.

During the most recent mission, which launched on Dec. 6, Rocket Lab guided the Electron’s first stage back down toward Earth in the proper orientation for recovery — a big step toward rocket reuse, which the company plans to start implementing as early as next year. But Electron rockets won’t land vertically like New Shepard and Falcon 9 first stages do; instead, Rocket Lab plans to pluck the falling boosters out of the sky with a helicopter.

Not all of the rocket action is being conducted by American companies, either. For example, Beijing-based OneSpace, which aims to give small payloads rides to suborbital space and to orbit, launched for the first time in 2018.

Lots going on

The variety and capabilities of the hardware carried by such rockets have surged over the past decade as well.

For example, the 2010s saw the dawn of the off-Earth-manufacturing era. That milestone occurred in September 2014, when a 3D printer built by California-based startup Made In Space rode to the ISS (aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule for good measure).

Since then, Made In Space has launched a handful of other machines to the orbiting lab, including equipment that manufactures the high-value optical fiber ZBLAN.

The company is also developing in-space assembly technology known as Archinaut, which Made In Space envisions will help repair, upgrade and refuel satellites in orbit and build entirely new structures as well. This past July, NASA awarded the company nearly $74 million to give Archinaut an orbital test, which could come as early as 2022.

Advances by the private space sector have also made it much easier to see what’s happening here on Earth. For instance, the San Francisco-based company Planet first launched its sharp-eyed Dove Earth-observation satellites to orbit in 2013, and several hundred have been lofted to date.

These tiny spacecraft, each of which is about the size of a loaf of bread, capture imagery for use by a wide variety of customers. Some of these photos have considerable national security utility; Doves have helped analysts keep tabs on the North Korean and Iranian rocket and missile programs, for instance.

Communications tech also leaped ahead in the 2010s, Stallmer said, citing the launch of more-capable broadband satellites. And much bigger things are to come in this respect. SpaceX launched its first 120 Starlink spacecraft in 2019 and eventually aims to loft up to 12,000 of these satellites (including another 60 before the year is out). Several other companies, such as OneWeb and Amazon, have similar goals. (These planned megaconstellations have come with some controversy, however. Astronomers have expressed concerns about how Starlink and its ilk will affect their observations, and other folks in the space community worry about the space-junk hazard such craft pose.)

The 2010s also saw the increased commercialization of the ISS. For example, Texas-based NanoRacks, which helps customers get their gear up and running on the station, got its first foothold on the orbiting lab in 2010.

NASA has been encouraging this trend, as well as increased private activity in deep space. In the past year or two, for example, the American space agency has started reserving space on commercial lunar landers.

The delivery of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations to the moon by these private robotic craft will help NASA put boots on the lunar surface by 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence on and around Earth’s nearest neighbor by the end of the 2020s, agency officials have said. Indeed, NASA even wants the private sector to help get those astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

This is just a sampling of the past decade’s advances, of course; there are far too many to detail in a single story.

Driving factors

Several factors are driving such progress, Stallmer said. One of the biggest catalysts is the drop in the cost to access space.

“If people have to spend 50% less on launching a payload, it enables them to open a larger market on development of what they can do and build on the ground,” Stallmer told

And what they can build on the ground is increasingly efficient and capable, given the ever-increasing miniaturization of electronics that’s exemplified by Planet’s flock of Doves. It also helps that those two sides — launch and payload — have been acting in increasing synergy in recent years, Stallmer said, noting a better alignment of supply and demand in the space sector.

Space companies also found it increasingly easy to access private capital throughout the 2010s, Stallmer said. The numbers back this up: According to the venture capital company Space Angels, $24.6 billion has been invested in the commercial space sector since 2009 — and $5 billion of that has been pumped in just in the first three quarters of 2019.

Investors’ pockets have been opened, at least in part, by the successes notched throughout the decade by companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic (which flew landmark crewed test flights to suborbital space in December 2018 and February 2019). And these high-profile pioneers have pushed the industry forward in other ways as well, Stallmer said.

Such companies have inspired people to start their own space outfits and also seeded them with talent. For instance, up-and-coming launch provider Relativity Space, which recently announced that it had raised $140 million from investors in its latest funding round, was founded in 2015 by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone — alums of Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively.

Not so fast

But it hasn’t all been wine and roses for private spaceflight in the 2010s. Milestones have been much harder to come by in a particularly high-profile field: human spaceflight.

Consider Virgin Galactic, which aims to fly paying customers to and from suborbital space aboard its six-passenger spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo. The company is nearly ready to start doing so, but the timeline has shifted considerably to the right over the years. Back in 2004, after all, Richard Branson predicted that his newly founded company would begin commercial space-tourism operations by 2007.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard is designed to carry people as well, but it doesn’t yet have any crewed flights under its belt, though that seems likely to change soon. (It’s tough to say much about New Shepard timeline shifts, because Blue Origin has mostly avoided publicly announcing target dates throughout its 19-year history.)

Then there are the crew-carrying orbital vehicles. In 2010, NASA began encouraging the development of these spacecraft via the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, to fill the shoes of the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle fleet. In September 2014, Boeing and SpaceX emerged as the big winners of this competition, each scoring multibillion-dollar contracts to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner are on target to start this taxi service soon, perhaps in 2020. But again, that’s later than the primary stakeholders had hoped. When NASA officials announced the SpaceX and Boeing deals in September 2014, for example, they said they hoped at least one of the two capsules would be up and running by 2017.

Part of the responsibility for these delays rests with the U.S. Congress, which did not fund the Commercial Crew Program adequately in its early years, said space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

But the wait also reinforces a simple and sobering reality about exploration: “Human spaceflight is hard,” Logsdon told

Numerous examples make this point. For example, Virgin Galactic’s progress has been slowed by two fatal accidents, one on the ground in 2007 at the facilities of design and manufacturing partner Scaled Composites and another in 2014, during a rocket-powered test flight of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise. And the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that performed a historic uncrewed demonstration flight to the ISS in March no longer exists; it was destroyed a month later during a ground-test accident, setting SpaceX back some.

And just today (Dec. 20), Boeing’s Starliner experienced problems during its first orbital mission, an uncrewed test flight that was supposed to go to the ISS. An error with the capsule’s timing system prevented that rendezvous, and Starliner is now scheduled to come back down to Earth on Sunday morning (Dec. 22) without achieving a number of major test-flight goals.

But these companies are working through such issues, and exciting things may well be just over the horizon. Seeing Crew Dragon, Starliner, SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard come fully online will be thrilling enough. But shortly thereafter, a private spaceship could carry people to deep space for the first time. After all, SpaceX is working on a 100-passenger, Mars-colonizing craft called Starship, and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked a flight around the moon with a target launch date of 2023.

“The 2010s were ‘getting ready,’ and we’re close to ready,” Logsdon said about private human spaceflight. “Hopefully, 2020 will see ‘getting started.'”

SpaceX will launch private citizens into orbit – The Verge

SpaceX will launch private citizens into orbit

A truly out-of-this-world experience

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SpaceX is planning to send up to four private citizens into space to take a trip around Earth sometime at the end of 2021 or in early 2022. The spaceflight company announced an agreement on Tuesday with Space Adventures, a space tourism business that has helped seven different private citizens take trips to (and from) the International Space Station aboard Russia’s Soyuz rocket and spacecraft.

Space Adventures said the price of the mission will not be disclosed, and the two companies were light on other details, like what kind of preparation the tourists will have to go through. The companies did say Tuesday that the tourists will fly in the human-rated version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and that they will orbit Earth at two to three times the roughly 250-mile height of the ISS.

SpaceX has spent the last few years building and testing out this new version of Dragon as part of a contract with NASA to shuttle astronauts to and from the ISS, after years of using the spacecraft to shuttle cargo to the space station. The private spaceflight company recently completed the second major flight test of the Crew Dragon, as it’s called, which demonstrated the capsule’s ability to escape an exploding rocket.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has teased the idea of space tourism as a business for a few years now, though he’s been overly optimistic about how soon that could happen. The company announced in early 2017 that it had accepted undisclosed payments from two customers for a trip around the Moon using Crew Dragon and the Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX said at the time that the trip would happen by the end of 2018. But in September 2018, the company announced that it now intends to send one of those passengers — Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa — around the Moon using the company’s massive, yet-to-be-built Big Falcon Rocket. (It’s still unclear what happened to the second customer.)

SpaceX has similarly had to delay the first Crew Dragon flight with NASA astronauts as it worked through the process of certifying the spacecraft with NASA. That flight is now supposed to take place later this year.

Other private spaceflight companies are vying to establish the space tourism market. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are in the running, though both of those companies are promising far briefer experiences. Virgin Galactic says it plans to send its first space tourists up later this year where they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness in the company’s plane-like spaceship. Blue Origin is promising customers a similar amount of time in space, though in a spacecraft that’s more similar to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. (Both of those tickets cost in the neighborhood of $200,000 a pop.)

While little is known about the newly-announced flight, SpaceX has detailed the inside of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will ferry the tourists around the Earth. The capsule’s interior is a minimalist affair, with just a few suspended seats and an array of touchscreens. The spacecraft is ringed with windows, though they’re not as large as the ones Blue Origin built into its own capsule. SpaceX has also shown off sleek, custom-designed spacesuits and helmets that Crew Dragon passengers will wear. The suits are less bulky-looking than past designs, but are still pressurized, cooled, and flame resistant. They come with touchscreen compatible gloves, and will lock into the seats for the ride up to space.

Update February 18th, 11:51AM ET: Added new information in the second paragraph from Space Adventures about cost and orbit height.

This year may finally fulfill the promise of private human spaceflight, Ars Technica

This year may finally fulfill the promise of private human spaceflight

Big and small rockets. The Moon and Mars. Lots of asteroid stuff, too.

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This year could see the fulfillment of a number of long-promised achievements in human spaceflight. For the first time, private companies could launch humans into orbit in 2020, and two different companies could send paying tourists on suborbital missions. The aerospace community has been watching and waiting for these milestones for years, but 2020 is probably the year for both.

We may also see a number of new rocket debuts this year, both big and small. A record number of missions—four—are also due to launch to Mars from four different space agencies. That’s just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting year; here’s a look at what we’re most eagerly anticipating in the coming 11.5 months.

Commercial crew

Yes, it’s happening. Probably. Both SpaceX and Boeing have made considerable progress toward launching humans to the International Space Station from Florida. They’ve also had setbacks. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon performed a successful test back in March, but a month later the capsule exploded during a thruster test. Boeing completed an orbital uncrewed test flight in December, but it was hampered by a software issue and unable to perform the primary task of its flight, approaching and docking with the International Space Station.

These issues are likely surmountable. SpaceX plans to conduct a test of its in-flight abort systems on Saturday—using a slightly modified version of the SuperDraco thrusters that caused problems in April. Success with this test could set up a crewed launch in late spring depending on how fast NASA can review data from that and other tests before signing off on Crew Dragon’s readiness for flight.

Further Reading

Less clear is how long Boeing’s software issues will set the company back. Starliner also experienced some thruster issues during its test flight. NASA has said it will spend the next two months reviewing the issue before deciding how to proceed. The bottom line is that it seems likely that one or both companies probably will get crewed flights off in 2020. We can’t wait.

Space tourism

Let’s face it: we’ve heard this before. Richard Branson has been promising to take tourists on a suborbital space ride for a long time. As far back as July 2008, Sir Richard said Virgin Galactic would be ready to bring its first paying customers into space within 18 months. More than a decade has since passed since then, but Virgin appears to be getting close.

The company has completed two successful suborbital test flights to the edge of space with its VSS Unity spacecraft, and Virgin has since begun refitting the cabin interior for customer missions. The first paying customers will likely fly later this year—including Sir Richard himself.

Axiom Space may have just cornered the private space mission market – Business Insider

Axiom Space inks deal with SpaceX to take private astronauts into space — and possibly corner the private space-mission market

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  • Axiom Space, a startup co-founded by a former NASA space station program manager, has inked a deal to fly all-private missions to orbit with SpaceX rockets and ships.
  • Axiom told Business Insider that “part of the crew is locked in” for the first mission, scheduled to launch in 2021, but declined to name those private astronauts.
  • NASA says it can accommodate two private missions to the International Space Station (ISS) per year, and Axiom plans to launch that many per year.
  • The startup eventually hopes to fly its own modules to the ISS in a few years, then later reconfigure them into a private space station.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Axiom Space, a startup co-founded by a former NASA manager, has inked a deal with SpaceX to launch the first all-private crewed missions into orbit.

The venture capital-backed company announced the deal on Thursday. The news, broken in Forbes by Jonathan O’Callaghan, follows a NASA announcement in June that the agency is opening up its modules on the International Space Station (ISS) to private crew members for $35,000 a night.

Private astronauts have flown to the ISS for years, but always as part of a larger professional crew and always on board Russia’s Soyuz spaceship. Axiom, led by CEO and co-founder Mike Suffredini, who managed NASA’s space station program for a decade before retiring from the agency, says it aims to launch the first all-private ISS mission “as soon as the second half of 2021.”

“This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space,” Suffredini said in a statement.

That first mission will fly a privately trained commander and three other private astronauts aboard SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spaceship. Crew Dragon has flown to orbit and back and proved its escape system works. The spaceship has yet to fly any people, but that should change this spring with SpaceX’s Demo-2 test mission for NASA, which will rocket veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit.

When asked about its arrangement with SpaceX or how much a ticket aboard Crew Dragon might cost, a spokesperson for Axiom told Business Insider in an email that “it is our policy not to discuss pricing or contract details.” However, NASA’s Office of Inspector General estimated in a November 2019 report that the agency would pay roughly $55 million per astronaut (which is about $35 million cheaper than a spot aboard Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship).

The spokesperson also declined to name the mission commander or any space tourist on the flight, but said “part of the crew is locked in,” indicating one or more the four crew members have yet to finalize a contract to fly.

“[W]e have a pipeline of prospects with whom we are always in various stages of discussion about seats on several of our planned flights,” the spokesperson said.

The first mission is slated to dock with the ISS for more than a week to allow the private crew to experience “microgravity and views of Earth that can only be fully appreciated in the large, venerable station,” the announcement said.

Around 2024, though, Axiom hopes to launch its own private modules to attach to and expand the ISS — then reconfigure them into a private space station once NASA decides to de-orbit its decades-old, football-field-sized facility.

NASA, when asked about the fresh announcement, gave Business Insider the following statement:

“Axiom’s partnership with SpaceX directly supports NASA’s broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit by United States entities. NASA’s goal is to achieve a robust economy in low-Earth orbit from which NASA can purchase services as one of many customers. A robust commercial space economy ensures national interests for research and development in low-Earth orbit are fulfilled while allowing NASA to focus government resources on deep space exploration through the Artemis program and land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon in 2024.”

Axiom is on its way to cornering the private space-mission market

NASA told Business Insider that, as part of its plans to increasingly commercialize low-Earth orbit and the ISS itself, the agency “intends to accommodate up to two short-duration private astronaut mission opportunities” per year.

“Interested entities need to make an agreement with NASA for those missions,” NASA said. “At this point, all private astronaut mission opportunities are available to outside entities.”

However, Axiom hopes to launch two all-private missions per year to the ISS. Should NASA sign off on such an arrangement, Axiom may be the premier private-mission provider for some time.

Such a decision may affect the plans of competitors such as Bigelow Aerospace, which is also building private space station modules designed to attach to the ISS or serve as independent research laboratories (and hotels) in orbit.

Although Axiom can approve whomever it wants to fly aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, NASA says it and its space station partners “will have final approval for all crew traveling to the ISS.”

“Private astronauts will have to meet FAA regulatory requirements, which include liability waivers, insurance, and indemnification during launch and reentry activities,” NASA said.

Those who are approved for flight will train at Axiom and NASA facilities in Houston, Texas, and, for Crew Dragon-specific training, at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. At NASA facilities, private astronauts will be trained by KBR, “a leading solutions provider to the civil, military and commercial space industry” that recently signed a Space Act Agreement with the agency and has helped train professional astronauts for decades.

“The commander will be trained to the same level as a NASA astronaut,” Axiom said, and with a company-designed curriculum crafted in part by “two former NASA astronauts and a long-time Mission Control flight director.”

Axiom views itself as distinct compared to Space Adventures, which recently acquired seats aboard Crew Dragon missions and has flown space tourists for decades.

“Space Adventures is a broker. Axiom is not. Axiom is a full-service mission provider that manages its own missions,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, our flights will go to ISS and allow customers to experience life aboard ISS and have, essentially, better views and room to move around — as opposed to merely floating in a capsule in orbit for a few days.”

Axiom says it hopes to take advantage of its fuller access to reach a customer base made up of governments “that want to get into human spaceflight” or expand their existing presence on the ISS. The company is also, of course, targeting (presumably very wealthy) private individuals.

Practically, the startup says it hopes to help agencies and companies — likely including NASA and SpaceX — test Mars-bound systems. Axiom also wants to boost commercial activity in space and profit from “in-space research, microgravity manufacturing, or media and brand partnerships.”

There Are 2 Seats Left for This Trip to the International Space Station – The New York Times

There Are 2 Seats Left for This Trip to the International Space Station

Axiom Space is selling tickets on a SpaceX capsule for a $55 million, 10-day stay on the orbiting outpost that would be the first to involve no governmental space agencies.

If you have tens of millions of dollars to spare, you could as soon as next year be one of three passengers setting off aboard a spaceship to the International Space Station for a 10-day stay.

On Thursday, Axiom Space, a company run by a former manager of NASA’s part of the space station, announced that it had signed a contract with SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, for what might be the first fully private human spaceflight to orbit.

“I think you’ll see a lot more energy in the market as people come to realize it’s real, and it’s happening,” said Michael T. Suffredini, the president and chief executive of Axiom.

The spaceflight, Axiom officials said, could take off as soon as the second half of 2021.

SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon capsule for taking NASA astronauts to and from the space station. But just as the company’s development of its Falcon 9 rocket for taking cargo to the space station led to a vibrant business of launching commercial satellites, SpaceX is also looking to expand Crew Dragon passengers beyond just NASA astronauts.

After a successful test in January of an in-flight escape system, the first Crew Dragon flight carrying two NASA astronauts could launch within a couple of months.

For now, NASA wants a new Crew Dragon for each trip carrying its astronauts, even though the capsules are designed for multiple trips to space. That means a Crew Dragon flown for NASA could be used again for a flight of tourists.

Last month, Space Adventures, another company, announced an agreement with SpaceX to fly a Crew Dragon with up to four tourists for a free-flying trip that would last up to five days. That trip would not dock at the space station. Eric C. Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, said in an interview the Crew Dragon would fly autonomously but that the passengers would receive training to be ready for various emergencies.

The Space Adventures trip could happen in late 2021 or early 2022. “It’ll be probably right around the 60th anniversary of the John Glenn’s flight,” Mr. Anderson said, referring to the first American to circle Earth, on Feb. 20, 1962.

The capsule and its passengers would take an elliptical path, reaching an altitude two to three times as high as the space station’s orbit.

Mr. Anderson did not provide an exact price, but said the cost would be $10 million to $20 million less than the $50 million to $60 million usually mentioned for orbital trips.

On the planned Axiom flight, one seat would be occupied by a company-trained astronaut who would serve as the flight commander. The other three seats will be for customers who are to spend 10 days in orbit floating inside the space station. The Axiom astronaut would also oversee the space tourists while they were on the station, making sure that they did not interfere with the six crew members.

Mr. Suffredini said that the space station, with as much interior room as a Boeing 747 jetliner, should have enough room for everyone.

He declined to talk about the cost, but in the past, Axiom has confirmed that a seat on the trip will cost $55 million, and it has already signed up one person.

From 2001 to 2009, seven nonprofessional astronauts bought trips to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. In each of these trips, arranged by Space Adventures, the other two astronauts on the spacecraft were working professionals headed for a tour of duty in orbit. Last year, the United Arab Emirates bought a Soyuz seat to jump-start its space program by sending an astronaut, Hazzaa al-Mansoori, to the space station.

The Axiom mission could be the first orbital flight with people aboard without the direct involvement of a governmental space agency.

NASA has in recent years become more receptive to allowing companies to find new ways to make money on the space station. Last June, NASA set up a price list for various commercial activities, including charging companies like Axiom $35,000 a night for each tourist staying at the station for space to sleep and the use of its amenities like air, water, the internet and the toilet. The largest chunk of the $55 million ticket price is for the rocket ride, which Axiom will pay to SpaceX, not NASA.

“NASA has been very forward leaning, and we’re taking advantage of that,” Mr. Suffredini said.

From 2005 to 2015, Mr. Suffredini worked at NASA as program manager for the International Space Station. A year after retiring, he was one of the founders of Axiom, which claims it can build and operate a private facility at a fraction of the $4 billion that NASA spends annually on the International Space Station.

But the first step in that plan is going to the I.S.S.

Axiom has been discussing with NASA the possibility of tourist flights for several years. Last month, NASA also selected Axiom to develop a module that would be attached to the I.S.S. in 2024 and used for commercial business activities. When the space station is eventually retired, the Axiom module would be detached and used as a building block for Axiom’s private space station.

If a trip to orbit seems like too much, two other companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, may be on track to carry their first customers on short-hop space tourism flights to the edge of space. Virgin earlier priced seats on its space plane at $250,000, but may now charge more. Blue Origin has not announced the cost of a trip aboard its reusable rocket and capsule, New Shepard.

“I think it’s an important inflection point,” said Mr. Anderson of Space Adventures. Space travel, even if affordable for only a few, is still marker of hope and what humans can and do accomplish, he said.

“I’m hopeful it will be something cool and positive in the world,” he said.

This was the decade the commercial spaceflight industry leapt forward – The Verge

This was the decade the commercial spaceflight industry leapt forward

Led by SpaceX, there’s been a paradigm shift in the business of space

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Two years into the decade, on May 25th, 2012, a small teardrop-shaped capsule arrived at the International Space Station, packed with cargo and supplies for the crew living on board. Its resupply mission at the ISS wasn’t remarkable, but the vehicle itself was unique: it was a Dragon cargo capsule, owned and operated by a private company called SpaceX.

Before 2012, only vehicles operated by governments had ever visited the ISS. The Dragon was the first commercial vehicle to dock with the station. The milestone was a crowning achievement for the commercial industry, which has permanently altered the spaceflight sector over the last 10 years.

This decade, the space industry has seen a shift in the way it does business, with newer players looking to capitalize on different markets and more ambitious projects. The result has been an explosion of growth within the commercial sector. It’s allowing for easier access to space than ever before, with both positive and negative results. Such growth is providing the commercial space industry with lots of momentum coming into the 2020s, but it’s unclear if this pace is something that can be kept up.

A new paradigm

Commercial companies have been involved in spaceflight since the dawn of space travel. Private companies built the Saturn V rocket for NASA, which took the first humans to the surface of the Moon. But for much of the 20th century, the companies that built those rockets and spacecraft weren’t purely focused on space travel. Instead, behemoth contractors specialized in space technologies, while also focusing on other areas of tech such as aviation and defense. They pursued purely government contracts — either from NASA or the Department of Defense — and most often the government told them exactly what to do.

“Under the old model, the government would hire a Lockheed or a Boeing or somebody to build one of these rockets,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, tells The Verge. “Almost all the money would come from the government, and the government would have almost complete control over what was built.” It’s the way the Space Shuttle was built; the way the International Space Station was built; the way the future James Webb Space Telescope is being built. All of these things are owned and operated by NASA, though they’ve all been built by contractors.

NASA’s Space Shuttle, built by contractors, flew its final flight in 2011 Image: NASA

For years, companies with the most spaceflight experience pursued these juicy government gigs, forsaking the private market. The US’s biggest launch provider since 2006, the United Launch Alliance, was mostly established to loft national security satellites for the DoD. “Because our companies became only interested in and focusing on the government customer, by 2010, at the beginning of the decade, we had no market share at all in the commercial space launch industry,” Greg Autry, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California specializing in new space, tells The Verge. “If a private company from Thailand wanted to launch a TV satellite or an Israeli company wanted to launch a communications satellite, an American launch vehicle was not even a consideration.”

But in the 2000s, a new player emerged in the commercial space arena. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., helmed by billionaire Elon Musk, took a different route than the contractors. The company was purely focused on space travel, with a very ambitious long-term goal: start a settlement on Mars someday. First, it had to build actual rockets, and the company had to be profitable doing so. Armed with private investment from Musk and early adopters, SpaceX started developing rockets on its own. And rather than focus entirely on government contracts, SpaceX pursued any customer it could, from NASA and the DoD, to commercial and international satellite operators. If you had something that needed to get to space, SpaceX wanted to fly it for you.

As SpaceX strived to make a name for itself, NASA started to experiment with a new way of doing business. Known as fixed-price contracting, the idea worked liked this: The space agency would put out a call for a service (for instance, a way to transport cargo to the ISS). Companies would then pitch their own ideas and vehicles to make that happen. If NASA liked the pitch, it would hand over a lump sum of money as investment, and the company would go into development. Once the vehicle was complete, NASA would pay for the use of it. It was meant to be a win-win. NASA would pay less money up front for a service, and private companies would own and operate their final creations.

This model was perfect for a company like SpaceX. It could use the investment from the government to supplement the development of its rockets, and then ultimately use the rockets to make money once development was complete. “That caused them to think creatively,” Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under the Obama administration, tells The Verge. “There was a guaranteed market if you could get there.” That’s exactly what happened after SpaceX was tasked by NASA to start servicing the International Space Station. Once the company had developed its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX tried to put as many satellites on top of the vehicle as possible.

SpaceX’s Dragon, captured by the robotic arm on the International Space Station, in May 2012 Image: NASA

To capture more customers, SpaceX strove to bring down launch costs through new methods of manufacturing and a vertically integrated business. Famously, SpaceX relentlessly pursued making its rockets reusable, by landing them after each flight — a feat that’s meant to save the company on manufacturing costs. SpaceX has reaped the benefits of its affordable launches, too. Despite a few notable rocket failures, the company is still the most prolific launch provider in the US at the moment, and holds contracts with numerous customers from around the world. “They want to pursue private markets,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge. “And they want to stimulate private markets.”

For better or for worse

Capitalism finally infiltrated spaceflight in the 2010s, and that meant competition was in full swing. Other launch providers looked at ways to also bring down costs over the last decade, with some pursuing reusability as well. New players are coming onto the scene: Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, and more. As launch costs have come down, space has become more accessible than ever.

Over the last decade, Moore’s law has also finally taken hold of spaceflight, with satellites and vehicles being built smaller. These cereal box-sized satellites are easier and cheaper to make than their bus-sized predecessors, and they’re much cheaper to launch, requiring less overall room on a rocket. As a result, companies focused solely on building small satellites have seen enormous success. Research organizations and universities looking to put something into orbit have an easier time of making that happen. This trend, combined with more launch vehicles, has resulted in an explosion of new vehicles and satellite constellations from commercial companies.

With all this progress does come unintended consequences. The rise of SpaceX has also seen the rise of the SpaceX fans. Unlike other CEOs, Musk’s fans revere him as an almost godlike figure, a savior for humanity who will lead us to a utopia on Mars. Criticizing him and SpaceX for any reason comes with major risk, as you will likely be perceived as tearing down progress. That’s unfortunate, because healthy skepticism is warranted these days, as SpaceX’s claims and ambitions have grown loftier than ever. The latest claim is that the company will be landing a giant new vehicle on the Moon by 2022 — but that vehicle hasn’t yet been built, and it certainly hasn’t flown. “Every pronouncement that they make, no matter how wacky it is, is reported without critique, largely,” Linda Billings, a current consultant to NASA’s astrobiology and planetary defense programs, tells The Verge.

Some of the more formidable projects these companies want to undertake could also be detrimental down the road. Notably, SpaceX, OneWeb, and other companies have all been eyeing a new spaceflight market: filling low Earth orbit with tens of thousands of satellites, in order to beam internet coverage to the surface below. In an effort to bolster the progress of the commercial space industry, the government has taken a light touch approach to regulating these more entrepreneurial companies. The Federal Communications Commission, which provides licenses for launches, has been very lax in its approvals, giving SpaceX and OneWeb the go-ahead for their massive satellite initiatives. Now, there’s not much stopping them from increasing the amount of satellites in orbit by several orders of magnitude.

SpaceX’s first batch of Starlink satellites, just before being deployed Image: SpaceX

It’s unclear what that will do to the space around Earth. Already, there’s concern that so many satellites will transform the night sky, making it difficult for astronomers to make detailed observations of the Universe when so many vehicles are whizzing overhead. But even more concerning is how all these satellites will add to an already congested region of space. Injecting thousands of satellites into orbit over the next few years may drastically increase the chances of things colliding. The end result could be that low Earth orbit becomes too crowded, and essentially unusable.

While this decade saw ambitions grow along with enormous progress within the commercial space sector, many things that had been promised didn’t pan out. Most notably, human spaceflight on commercial vehicles has yet to fully mature. Space tourism ventures Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic argued that customers could be flying this decade. That dream will have to wait until the 2020s. “Branson was saying we were going to start flying tourists in 2008,” says Billings. “And where are we now?” Meanwhile, SpaceX and Boeing have been developing new vehicles to carry humans to the International Space Station, under the new contracting model that NASA used to resupply the ISS. While the process may be less expensive than other contracting methods, the development has still been fraught with delays and setbacks — whether that be from stringent oversight, low budgets, or just plain engineering problems. The first crews were supposed to fly in 2017. Now they will likely fly for the first time in 2020. Creating new passenger spacecraft that keep people alive and safe still takes a lot of time, no matter what contracting method you use.

What’s next?

As the 2020s get underway, the commercial space industry will have a lot to prove, especially since many have their sights set much higher than low Earth orbit. Numerous private companies are aiming to send robotic landers to the Moon in the next few years, while SpaceX, Blue Origin, and more all vow to send people to the Moon someday. It’s unclear how long it will take them to get there, if they can make it at all. The first private company, an Israeli nonprofit, attempted to land on the Moon this year and didn’t stick the landing.

Ultimately, it’s uncertain if there is a solid market for more ambitious forms of space travel. Even the satellite market has softened in recent years, which may explain why SpaceX has tried to turn itself into a consumer-facing business through its satellite constellation. It needs money to stay afloat. The scary thought is: what if there’s not much more money to squeeze out of space? Experts have long been forecasting days where private space stations will dominate low Earth orbit, frequented by tourists on vacation or their honeymoons. Eventually, private companies hope to scour the Moon’s surface for water ice, which they could turn into drinking water or rocket fuel for lunar bases. It all sounds like a great future. “Commercializing the lunar stuff, honestly, is not going to happen as fast, because there isn’t a market for it anytime soon,” says Garver. “But anyone could have told you there was a market for launch outside of NASA.”

The next decade will show us if the commercial spaceflight industry can match the progress it’s seen these last 10 years. Maybe these companies will finally take us beyond Earth orbit, with people along for the ride. Or it may reveal that the market for space is staying close to home for the foreseeable future.

SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic: Who’s who in private space travel, Alphr

SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic: Who’s who in private space travel?

NASA’s budgets have shrunk since the late 1960s, so which companies are stepping up to fill the gap?

In the West, NASA is synonymous with space travel. That’s understandable: the space agency not only put a man on the moon in 1969, but also launched the Hubble Telescope, pioneered the reusable space shuttle, sent probes to Uranus and Neptune , and hugely increased our knowledge of asteroids, and Pluto thanks to New Horizons . The plan is still for NASA to put humans on Mars within a generation, but the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel thinks that’s a long shot thanks to a lack of innovative technology and a funding gap.

The second issue is a problem that isn’t getting better any time soon. On paper, it may look as though NASA’s budget has grown year-on-year, but if you adjust the figures for inflation and plot the budget as a percentage of US GDP, things become more clear. The budget has been shrinking in real terms ever since the Apollo missions, when beating the Russians was a sufficiently large incentive for Congress to bankroll NASA to a degree we’re unlikely to see again soon.

When NASA retired its space-shuttle fleet seven years ago, the door was open for the private sector to pick up the slack with rocket and space-station construction. This side-steps an awful lot of red tape, although it raises vaguely troubling questions about profitability over the sum total of human knowledge. Nonetheless, a number of private enterprises have stepped up to the plate. Here are some of the key players.


Established all the way back in 2002 by Elon Musk – fresh off the back of selling PayPal to eBay – SpaceX was founded to reduce the cost of space travel and push us ever closer to colonising Mars, a goal that Musk is extremely passionate about .

The best way to reduce the cost of space travel? Reusable rockets – namely its Falcon 9, and its Falcon Heavy .

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for the reliable and safe transport of satellites and the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Falcon 9 is the first orbital class rocket capable of reflight. SpaceX believes rocket reusability is the key breakthrough needed to reduce the cost of access to space and enable people to live on other planets.

SpaceX said the Falcon 9 “was designed from the ground up for maximum reliability.” It has two stages and the first stage features nine engines meaning it can safely complete its mission even in the event of an engine shutdown.

Since 2006, SpaceX has had a contract from NASA to resupply cargo to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 made history in 2012 when it delivered the Dragon capsule into the correct orbit for the ISS, making SpaceX the first commercial company ever to visit the station. Since then Falcon 9 has made moe than a dozen trips to space, delivering satellites to orbit as well as delivering and returning cargo from the space station for NASA. The full manifest, including future missions is here.

Musk’s Falcon Heavy launched for the first time on 6 February, bringing one of his own sports cars into orbit with it. Falcon Heavy provides twice the thrust of the next largest rocket currently flying, according to Musk. He added that Falcon Heavy has around 2/3 of the thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket.

It was announced in September that SpaceX will launch its first tourist mission in 2023, and already has a passenger lined up: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. SpaceX has cited this upcoming mission as ” an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of travelling to space.”

Blue Origin

Then there’s Blue Origin, which was founded back in 2000 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In an interview 11 years later , Bezos explained the company’s mission in two sentences: “ If you really want to make it so that anybody can go into space, you have to increase the safety and decrease the cost. That’s Blue Origin’s mission.”

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin sees reusing rockets as the most efficient way to do this, which often sees the two companies being mentioned in the same breath. In 2016, the company successfully managed to land a rocket safely back on Earth for the second time in a row , which sounds suspiciously similar to SpaceX’s achievements. However, as Wait But Why succinctly put it , that’s where the similarities end:

“You have SpaceX trying to land a rocket that’s going much higher and much, much faster than Blue Origin’s, but with far less fuel to use for descent. This isn’t to take anything away from Blue Origin’s awesome accomplishment, but it shouldn’t even be talked about in the same conversation with SpaceX’s attempts at landing a rocket.”

That could change with time, of course, but on top of that, Blue Origin’s focus is – on the surface at least – more commercial than anything else. The company orignally aimed for commercial space flights by 2018, but it looks as though this goal is being pushed back .

But as Bezos told Florida Today last year, this too is a means to an end, advancing technology through commercial interest. Likening the early commercial space flights to the first years of the aeroplane, he explained: “The entertainment mission became a very important mission that led to lots of flights and lots of airplanes being manufactured. And that led to better airplanes. And then you get air mail and so on and so on.”

Virgin Galactic

You can’t mention space tourism without considering Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Founded back in 2004, it’s now seven years since Virgin Galactic’s maiden commercial flight was supposed to go ahead, but that date has already been pushed back a number of times – and we’re still waiting. Some more patiently than others: it was reported back in 2014 that, after repeated delays, 3% of customers had not unreasonably demanded refunds of their $200,000 deposits, still leaving the company with 680 paid-up customers.

They may also have pulled out due to safety concerns, with a high-profile crash that killed a pilot in 2014 leaving future plans very much in doubt. As Tom Bower, author of Branson: Behind the Mask, said : “ They spent 10 years trying to perfect one engine and failed. They are now trying to use a different engine and get into space in six months. It’s just not feasible.”

In test flights to date, the company has only managed altitudes of 71,000ft – more than twice your standard commercial flight, but still less than a third of the 320,000ft aimed for.

Branson’s not aiming for Mars, and wants, instead, to conquer commercial space travel. Last year, he said he was planning on being in space by early 2018. Clearly, that didn’t happen, but that has not discouraged the company. In a recent interview with CNBC, Branson claimed that Virgin Galactic will be in space within the next few weeks. No specific date was given for this supposed event.

“We will be in space with myself in months and not years,” he said. “We will be in space with people not too long after that.”

Orbital ATK

Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. it may sound like private space travel is the sole preserve of prominent rich entrepreneurs, but Orbital ATK has no such easily identifiable figure, and is the lowest profile here despite being the oldest by some margin: it’s the merger of two companies founded in 1982 (Orbital Sciences Corporation) and 1990 (parts of Alliant Techsystems).

TechRadar describes them as “the closest thing we’ve got to a privatised version of NASA”, and the company certainly has plenty of successes to back that up – not least of all the $1.9 billion contract it has with NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station, with its Cygnus rocket able to deliver 2,000kg of pressurised cargo.

Despite its heritage though, even Orbital ATK isn’t immune from accidents. NASA saw this firsthand in October 2014 when the company’s third cargo mission ended in the Antares rocket exploding upon launch.

That was the third resupply mission to fail that year, joining another from SpaceX and the Russian vehicle Progress M-59 . With something as difficult as space travel, accidents happen, whether it’s private companies or NASA itself .

“Space is hard,” as the old expression goes – just as well there’s plenty of competition, ensuring our best minds have extra incentive to crack it once and for all.

Images: 0x0077BE, and a composite of Daly3d, OnInnovation and Steve Jurvetson used under Creative Commons

Axiom strikes deal with SpaceX to ferry private astronauts to space station – Spaceflight Now

Axiom strikes deal with SpaceX to ferry private astronauts to space station

Axiom Space, a Houston-based company with plans to develop a commercial outpost in space, announced Thursday it has signed a contract with SpaceX to ferry a professional astronaut and three paying passengers to the International Space Station as soon as next year on the first fully private human spaceflight mission to Earth orbit.

The private crew members will spend at least eight days on the orbiting research platform, allowing them to enjoy “microgravity and views of Earth that can only be fully appreciated in the large, venerable station,” Axiom said in a statement.

Axiom said Thursday it has signed a contract with SpaceX to transport a commander “professionally trained” by Axiom and three private astronauts to the space station on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. The mission could take off as soon as the second half of 2021, Axiom said.

“This history-making flight will represent a watershed moment in the march toward universal and routine access to space,” said Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s CEO, in a statement. “This will be just the first of many missions to ISS to be completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space — a first for a commercial entity. Procuring the transportation marks significant progress toward that goal, and we’re glad to be working with SpaceX in this effort.”

Axiom says it plans to offer additional flights to the International Space Station for professional and private astronauts through a Space Act Agreement with NASA, which is looking to Axiom and other companies to develop a commercial market for human spaceflight in low Earth orbit after the space station’s retirement.

The private astronaut flight opportunities arranged by Axiom could launch as often as two times per year, the company said.

Self-funded space fliers to date have flown to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, joining crews comprised of government cosmonauts and astronauts.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner capsule are only U.S. vehicles expected to be available to transport commercial crews to the International Space Station in the coming years. Both human-rated ships were developed in partnership with NASA, which has contracts with SpaceX and Boeing valued at a combined $6.8 billion to build the Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules and fly government astronauts to the space station.

The Crew Dragon and Starliner spaceships will end NASA’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ferry ships for astronaut transportation to and from the space station. The Soyuz has been the only spacecraft able to carry crews to and from the station since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

SpaceX is gearing up for the first Crew Dragon test flight with astronauts on-board later this year. The mission, named Demo-2, could take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as soon as May, following an unpiloted Crew Dragon test flight to the station in March 2019.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will fly on the Crew Dragon to the space station. If the test flight goes well, the Crew Dragon will be certified for regular crew rotation flights to the orbiting complex lasting up to seven months.

The Crew Dragon is designed to accommodate up to four people on launch and landing. On crewed missions, the capsule will take off on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, then splash down in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida.

“Since 2012, SpaceX has been delivering cargo to the International Space Station in partnership with NASA and later this year, we will fly NASA astronauts for the first time,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating. “Now, thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration.”

Although NASA supported development of the Crew Dragon, the SpaceX capsule — like Boeing’s Starliner — is available for other customers.

Last month, the space tourism company Space Adventures announced an agreement with SpaceX to fly paying passengers on a Crew Dragon spacecraft without going to the space station. Instead, the Crew Dragon will fly on its own in Earth orbit, reaching altitudes hundreds of miles above the space station to provide passengers a more expansive view of Earth.

Passengers for the Space Adventures mission or the Axiom-managed flight have not been announced, but possible clients could include wealthy adventurers, filmmakers, researchers and astronauts from nations with nascent space programs.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft closes in for docking in March 2019 at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, meanwhile, failed to dock with the space station on its first unpiloted demonstration flight in December. Boeing and NASA engineers are probing the spacecraft’s software after the capsule suffered multiple faults during its mission, which ended with an early landing after missing its rendezvous with the space station.

Officials have not said when the Starliner spacecraft could be cleared for a test flight with astronauts, or whether NASA will require Boeing to launch another unpiloted demonstration mission before proceeding with a crewed mission.

Led by Suffredini, a former ISS program manager at NASA, Axiom is developing a commercial habitat to be installed on the International Space Station as soon as late 2024. In January, NASA selected Axiom to provide a module for an open port on the station in a step toward development of a commercial replacement of the International Space Station.

NASA announced last year it would solicit proposals from companies to provide a module to connect with the open port on the ISS. At the same time, the agency announced a pricing structure for private astronauts who launch on Boeing or SpaceX commercial crew spacecraft to live and work aboard the research outpost.

NASA is negotiating with Axiom on a firm-fixed price contract to provide at least one commercial module on the International Space Station. But Axiom has more ambitious goals.

Axiom says it plans to build and launch several modules to form the “Axiom Segment” of the International Space Station.

The privately-funded elements planned by Axiom include a node module, an orbital research and manufacturing facility, a crew habitat, and a “large-windowed Earth observatory” that is similar in appearance to the International Space Station’s cupola module. Axiom said the new commercial segment will add more research and habitation facilities to the ISS, and provide “novel avenues of research in areas such as isolation studies and Earth observation.”

Research currently conducted on the ISS could be transferred to the new commercial facility gradually to prevent interruptions with the ISS is retired, according to Axiom.

In parallel with the development of a commercial space station, Axiom says it will launch a series of “precursor missions” to the ISS with private astronauts, the first of which was announced Thursday.

Axiom says it oversee training, mission planning, hardware development, life support, medical support, crew provisions, hardware and safety certifications, on-orbit operations and overall mission management for the private astronaut flights.

While its initial partnership with NASA is focused on connecting a module and flying private astronauts to the International Space Station, Axiom plans to detach its commercial modules when the ISS reaches its retirement date, forming a standalone, free-flying commercial orbital station. Before the International Space Station is decommissioned and the Axiom Segment is detached, Axiom aims to launch a solar power platform to provide the commercial modules the electricity and cooling previously provided by the ISS.

The industry team assembled by Axiom to work on elements of the commercial space station includes Boeing and Thales Alenia Space of Italy. Boeing and Thales built most of the pressurized modules on the U.S. segment the International Space Station.

Other partners identified by Axiom include Intuitive Machines and Maxar Technologies.

The U.S. government is in the process of approving an extension to NASA’s support for the International Space Station to 2028 or 2030. By that time, NASA managers hope commercial operators like Axiom could take over management of a replacement space station in low Earth orbit.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Private companies are launching a new space race – here s what to expect, The Open University

Private companies are launching a new space race – here’s what to expect

The space race between the USA and Russia started with a beep from the Sputnik satellite exactly 60 years ago (October 4, 1957) and ended with a handshake in space just 18 years later. The handshake was the start of many decades of international collaboration in space. But over the past decade there has been a huge change.

The space environment is no longer the sole preserve of government agencies. Private companies have entered the exploration domain and are propelling the sector forward more vigorously and swiftly than would be the case if left to governments alone.

It could be argued that a new space race has begun, in which private companies are competing against each other and against government organisations. But this time it is driven by a competition for customers rather than the urge to show dominance by being first to achieve a certain goal. So who are the main players and how will they change the science, technology and politics of space exploration?

Put the phrase “private space exploration” into a search engine and a wealth of links emerges. Several have titles such as: “Six private companies that could launch humans into space”, “The world’s top 10 most innovative companies in space” or “10 major players in the private sector space race”. What is immediately apparent is that practically all these companies are based in the US.

There is a big difference between building and launching satellites into low Earth orbit for telecommunications and sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. Private companies in several nations have been engaged in the satellite market for many years. Their contributions to the development of non-governmental space exploration has helped to lay the trail for entrepreneurs with the vision and resources to develop their own pathways to space.

Today, several companies in the US are looking very specifically at human spaceflight. The three that are perhaps furthest down the road are SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The main goals of all three companies is to reduce the cost of access to space – mainly through reuse of launchers and spacecraft – making space accessible to people who are not specially trained astronauts. One thing these companies have in common is the private passion of their chief executives.

SpaceX Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. SpaceX

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a charismatic entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and investor. The ambition of SpaceX is “to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. To this end, the company has specialised in the design, manufacture and launch of rockets, providing direct competition to the United Launch Alliance (between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that had been the contract holder of choice for launch of NASA and Department of Defense rocket launches.

Its success has been spectacular. Having developed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, it became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft at the ISS in 2012. The firm now has a regular run there, carrying cargo. But so far, no astronauts. However, the Falcon Heavy is comparable to the Saturn 5 rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts, and SpaceX has designed its vehicle with a view to sending astronauts to the moon by 2018, and to Mars as early as 2023.

On September 29, Musk refined his plans, announcing the BFR project (which I like to pretend stands for Big F**king Rocket). This would replace the Falcon and Dragon spacecraft – and would not only transport cargo and explorers to the moon and Mars, but could also reduce travel times between cities on Earth. Musk calculates it could take as little as 29 minutes to fly from London to New York.

Whether the company succeeds in sending astronauts to the moon in 2018 remains to be seen. Either way, a lot could be going on then – 2018 is also the year when Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the technology and retail entrepreneur behind Amazon, aims to launch people to space. But its ambition is different from that of SpaceX. Blue Origin is focusing on achieving commercially available, sub-orbital human spaceflight – targeting the space tourism industry. The company has developed a vertical launch vehicle (New Shepard, after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard) that can reach the 100km altitude used to define where “space” begins. The rocket then descends back to Earth, with the engines firing towards the end of the descent, allowing the spacecraft to land vertically. Test flights with no passengers have made successful demonstrations of the technology. The trip to space and back will take about 10 minutes.

But Blue Origin has got some competition from Virgin Galactic, which describes itself as “the world’s first commercial spaceline”. Founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, also a technology and retail entrepreneur, it plans to carry six passengers at a time into sub-orbital space and give them about six minutes of weightlessness in the course of a two and a half hour flight.

The technology differs from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin in that the launch into space is not from the ground, but from a jet airplane. This mothership flies to an altitude of about 18km (about twice as high as regular aircraft fly) and releases a smaller, rocket-powered spacecraft (SpaceShip Two) which is propelled to an altitude of about 100km. The programme has been delayed by technical difficulties – and then by the tragic loss of pilot Mike Alsbury, when SpaceShip Two exploded in mid-air during a test flight in 2014. No date is yet set for the first passengers to fly.

There’s also the Google Lunar XPrize competition, announced in 2007, with the tagline: “Welcome to the new space race”. The aim of the prize is to launch a robotic mission to the moon, place a lander on the surface and drive 50 metres, sending back high-quality images and video. The competition is still in progress. Five privately funded teams must launch their spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2017.

Powerful international ties

The changes are taking place against a backdrop of tried and tested international collaboration in space, which took off in earnest at the end of the space race. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US and Russia space programmes complemented each other beautifully – though perhaps not intentionally. Following the cessation of Apollo in 1975, the US space programme focused its efforts on robotic exploration of the solar system.

The Voyager probes gave us amazing images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Mariner and Viking missions to Mars led to Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Messenger orbited Mercury and Magellan orbited Venus. When New Horizons launched to Pluto in 2006, it was a mission to visit the last planet left unexplored in the solar system.

Pluto as seen by New Horizons. NASA

Russia, on the other hand, pursued the goal of human spaceflight, with its incredibly successful Mir orbiting space station and its programme of flights to transfer cosmonauts and cargo backwards and forwards to Mir. Human spaceflight in the US revived with the Space Shuttle and its mission to build and occupy the International Space Station (ISS). The list of nations that contribute to the ISS continues to grow. The shuttle programme finished in 2011 and, since its successor Orion (built in collaboration with European Space Agency, ESA) is not due to come into service until at least 2023, the international community has been reliant on Russia to keep the ISS fuelled and inhabited.

Today, as well as the US and Russia, there are strong, vibrant and successful space programmes in Europe, Japan, India and China. The European Space Agency was established just two months before the historic handshake of 1975, following many years of independent aeronautical engineering research by individual nations. Similarly, the Chinese, Japanese and Indian space agencies can trace their heritages back to the 1960s. A number of smaller countries including the United Arab Emirates also have ambitious plans.

Of course these countries also compete against each other. There has been widespread speculation that the entry of China into the field was sufficient to introduce a fresh imperative to the US space programme. China has a well-developed space programme and is currently working towards having a space station in orbit around the Earth by about 2020. A prototype, Tiangong-2, has been in space for almost a year, and was occupied by two astronauts (or “taikonauts”) for a month.

China has also had three successful missions to the moon. And its next mission, Chang’e 5, due to launch towards the end of 2017, is designed to bring samples from the moon back to Earth. China also has a declared intent of landing taikonauts on the moon by 2025 – the same time frame in which the US will be testing its new Orion spacecraft in orbit around the moon.

But while there’s an element of competition, the success of the past few decades certainly shows that it is possible to collaborate in space even when tensions rise on the ground. Indeed, space exploration may even act as a buffer zone from international politics, which is surely something worth having. It will be interesting to see how a wider role in space exploration for private companies will affect such international collaborations, especially since so much of the effort is based in the USA.

Healthy competition or dangerous game?

A benefit of the entry of the private sector into space exploration has been recognition of the high-tech companies that contribute to the growth of the economy as valuable targets for investment. Indeed, a recent presentation at an international investment bank – under a heading of “Space; the next investment frontier” – declared that “investment interest has helped reduce launch costs and spur innovation across related industries, opening up a new chapter in the history of the space economy”.

One of the last engagements of Barack Obama’s presidency was to chair the Whitehouse Frontiers Conference, where space exploration was discussed as much within the context of US industry as within the drive to explore new worlds. Contributors to the conference included NASA – but overwhelmingly the speakers were from private technology and investment companies.

Perhaps it is cynical to say – but once investment starts to flow, lawyers won’t be far behind. And that is another aspect of the explosion of interest in space commerce and tourism. Laws, statutes and other regulations are necessary to govern the international nature of space exploration. At the moment, the United Nations, through its Office for Outer Space Affairs, is responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It also oversees operation of the Outer Space Treaty, which provides a framework for the governance of space and activities that might take place. While the obvious lack of “space police” means that it cannot be practically enforced, it has never actually been violated.

The operation is designed along similar lines to the international treaties that oversee maritime activities and the exploration of Antarctica. This is the closest that there is to international legislation and, since coming into operation in 1967 with the three inaugural signatories of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the (then) USSR, the treaty has been signed by 106 countries (including China and North Korea). It is necessary to have such controls because although the risks that surround space exploration are high, potential rewards are even higher.

If we look at the way more conventional businesses operate, such as supermarkets, competition drives prices down, and there is little reason to believe that competition between space companies would follow a different model. In which case, greater risks might be taken in order to increase profitability. There is no evidence for this so far – but as the field develops and additional private companies move into space exploration – there will be a higher probability of accident or emergency.

The treaty says that a state launching a probe or satellite is liable to pay compensation for damage when accidents occur. However, the costs of space exploration are astronomical and crippling to poorer countries, making them increasingly depend on commercial launchers. But if a private company launches an object that subsequently causes damage in space, the struggling economy will have to pick up the bill. The treaty may therefore need to be updated to make private companies more liable. There are also serious issues around the safety of astronauts, who have the legal right to a safe existence when in outer space. But even lawyers aren’t sure whether the law does – or should – extend to private astronauts.

Looking to the future, there will be a need for an expanded version of a Civil Aviation Authority, directing and controlling routes, launches and landings on Earth, and between and on planetary bodies. All the safety and security considerations of air and sea travel will pertain to space travel at a vastly enhanced level, because the costs and risks are so much higher. There will have to be firm and well-understood protocols in the event of a spacecraft crashing, or two spacecraft colliding. Not to mention piracy or the possibility of hijack. All this might sound a little gloomy, taking the dash and exhilaration from space exploration, but it will be a necessary development that opens up the era of space travel for citizens beyond those with deep pockets.

The original space race resulted from the ideas and skills of visionary theoretician engineers including: Robert H Goddard, Wernher von Braun, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky. Is it too far a stretch to think that the second space race is propelled by a new generation of entrepreneurs, including Bezos, Branson and Musk? If this is the situation, then I would hope that the main enabling factor in the pursuit of space endeavours is not possession of wealth, but that vision, ingenuity and a wish for the betterment of human are the main driving forces.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

SpaceX: Facts About Elon Musk s Private Spaceflight Company, Space

SpaceX: Facts About Elon Musk’s Private Spaceflight Company

Reference Article: Facts about SpaceX.

SpaceX is a private spaceflight company that puts satellites into orbit and delivers cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). It was the first private company to send a cargo ship to the ISS, doing so in 2012. The company is working on developing powerful rockets and spacecraft capable of carrying people into space. Founder and CEO Elon Musk said in 2019 that he wanted people to start flying aboard his company’s newest, enormous rocket ship in the next year or so.

Who owns SpaceX?

SpaceX was founded by Musk, a South African-born businessman and entrepreneur. At age 30, Musk made his initial fortune by selling his two successful companies: Zip2, which he sold for $307 million in 1999, and PayPal, which eBay purchased for $1.5 billion in 2002, The New York Times reported. He decided his next major venture would be a privately funded space company.

Initially, Musk had the idea of sending a greenhouse, dubbed the Mars Oasis, to the Red Planet. His goal was to drum up public interest in exploration while also providing a science base on Mars. But the cost ended up being too high, and instead, Musk started a spaceflight company called Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, now based in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, California.

He spent a third of his reported fortune, $100 million, to get SpaceX going. There was skepticism that he would be successful, which persisted into SpaceX’s first years.

After spending 18 months toiling privately on a spacecraft, SpaceX unveiled the craft in 2006 under the name Dragon. Musk reportedly named the spacecraft after “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” a 1960s song from folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. He said he chose the name because critics believed his spaceflight aims were impossible.

SpaceX’s first rocket: Falcon 1

Musk was already an experienced businessman when he started SpaceX, and he strongly believed that more-frequent and more-reliable launches would bring down the cost of exploration. So, he sought out a stable customer that could fund the early development of a rocket: NASA. (Later, he wooed launch clients from various sectors to diversify his customer base.) As such, his goal for SpaceX was to develop the first privately built, liquid-fueled booster to make it into orbit, which he called the Falcon 1.

The company experienced a steep learning curve on the road to orbit. It took four tries to get Falcon 1 flying successfully, with previous attempts derailed by problems such as fuel leaks and a rocket-stage collision. But eventually, Falcon 1 made two successful flights: on Sept. 28, 2008, and July 14, 2009. The 2009 launch also placed the Malaysian RazakSat satellite into orbit.

In 2006, SpaceX received $278 million from NASA under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program, which was created to spur the development of systems that could transport cargo commercially to the ISS. The addition of a few more milestones eventually boosted the total contract value to up to $396 million. SpaceX was selected for the program along with Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), but RpK’s contract was terminated with only partial payment after the company failed to meet required milestones.

Multiple companies participated in the COTS program in its early stages, in funded or unfunded contracts. In 2008, NASA awarded two contracts for commercial-resupply services. SpaceX received a contract for 12 flights (worth $1.6 billion), and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) received a contract for eight flights (worth $1.9 billion).

SpaceX’s path to the space station

While the funding showed that NASA had confidence in SpaceX’s ability to get a spacecraft ready to transport cargo supplies, the company still had work to do. To get into space with a heavy cargo load, the Dragon spacecraft would require more rocket power than what Falcon 1 could provide. So, SpaceX developed a next-generation rocket, called Falcon 9, to send Dragon into orbit. Falcon 9 would heft much more cargo: 28,991 lbs. (13,150 kilograms) to low Earth orbit, compared to Falcon 1’s capacity of 1,480 lbs. (670 kg). In addition, SpaceX planned to make the rocket self-landing, and therefore reusable, saving on costs.

SpaceX initially hoped to fly the spacecraft by 2008 or 2009, but the development process took years longer than the company thought it would. The maiden flight of Falcon 9 took place on June 4, 2010, with a simulated Dragon payload. The rocket launched successfully, although the landing attempt failed because the parachute didn’t work. SpaceX followed this up by launching the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft together on Dec. 8, 2010. Again, the launch was successful, meeting NASA’s COTS requirements, but the landing of the rocket failed.

The next and most crucial milestone was space station delivery. Dragon, riding a Falcon 9 rocket, delivered its first cargo to the space station in May 2012 under a test flight for the COTS program. The launch was delayed for a few days because of an engine problem, but the rocket lifted off safely on the next try.

Spaceflight observers commended SpaceX’s ability to send a cargo spacecraft to the ISS. Private spaceflight hadn’t even been considered when the space station was developed in the 1980s and ’90s.

SpaceX fulfilled the first of its regular commercial flights to the space station in October 2012. That flight achieved most of its objectives, but it experienced a partial rocket failure during launch. The failure ended up stranding a satellite, Orbcomm-OG2, in an abnormally low orbit, which led to the mission’s failure.

Building bigger and better spacecraft: Falcon 9, Dragon and Falcon Heavy

The initial Falcon Heavy flight, on Feb. 6, 2018, met almost all of its major milestones. Falcon Heavy successfully flew to orbit, carrying a Tesla Roadster (an electric car made by Tesla, another company owned by Musk) and a spacesuited mannequin nicknamed Starman onboard. SpaceX ran a livestream of the launch and the Roadster’s first few hours in space, which attracted attention from all over the world.

The two rocket boosters landed successfully near Kennedy Space Center, as expected, but the core stage hit the ocean at 300 mph (480 km/h), which was too fast, and it didn’t survive the impact. Falcon Heavy then performed an engine burn in space that is expected to bring the Roadster at least as far as Mars’ orbit.

April 2019 saw a setback for SpaceX when a test of the crewed Dragon spacecraft, intended to bring NASA astronauts to space, experienced a malfunction while on the ground. This created a smoke plume visible for miles around Cape Canaveral, Florida. The incident set back the company’s timeline for bringing people to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s plans for the future, Mars and more

SpaceX has customers from the private sector, military and nongovernmental entities, which pay the company to launch cargo into space. Although SpaceX makes its money from launch services, the company is also focused on developing technology for future space exploration.

And Musk’s dreams of flying to Mars are undimmed. In 2011, he told delegates at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) in San Diego that he planned to take people to Mars in 10 to 15 years. Three years later, at the International Space Development Conference, he said the reusable rocket stage would be a step in getting to the Red Planet.

“The reason SpaceX was created was to accelerate development of rocket technology, all for the goal of establishing a self-sustaining, permanent base on Mars,” Musk said at the time. “And I think we’re making some progress in that direction — not as fast as I’d like.”

In 2016, Musk unveiled his technological plan for Martian transport, which is a part of his plan to create a self-sustaining Red Planet colony in the next 50 to 100 years. The Interplanetary Transport System, as the rocket is called, is essentially a larger version of the Falcon 9. The spaceship, however, will be quite a bit larger than the Dragon, as it is slated to carry at least 100 people per flight. (The crewed version of the Dragon for the ISS is expected to carry four people, on average.)

Musk followed up his announcement in 2017 by publishing a paper describing a future Red Planet city of a million people and providing more details about how the ITS would transport cargo and people.

Musk updated his Mars plans in September 2017 in an address in Australia. He didn’t mention the ITS during the talk; instead, he talked about a system called the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). The spaceship that BFR will carry will be 157.5 feet (48 meters) tall and have 40 cabins for passengers, likely with a capacity of 100 people.

In 2018, Musk announced that Yusaku Maezawa, an artist and billionaire founder of the Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, and a handful of artists will launch on the BFR on a trip around the moon in the 2020s. SpaceX did not disclose how much Maezawa paid for that trip.

Musk once again unveiled an update to his Mars plans, in September 2019, renaming the first BFR to Starship Mk1 and switching its outer coating from expensive carbon fiber to stainless steel. Photos of the shiny, sci-fi-looking craft being assembled at SpaceX’s South Texas facilities, near the village of Boca Chica, circulated on the internet.

In 2019, Musk and SpaceX ignited controversy in the field of astronomy over the company’s plans to place a constellation of 12,000 small satellites in orbit around the Earth in order to provide reliable internet access to remote places. So far, only 60 of these Starlink satellites have launched but they have already left unsightly trails in astronomers’ telescope observations of the night sky. Many researchers fear that an increased number of satellites will cause problems for vital data-collecting enterprises.

According to a SpaceNews report, SpaceX plans to test out a special coating on the next round of Starlink satellites that could help make them less reflective and, therefore, less obtrusive in the night sky.

Additional resources:

  • You can follow SpaceX on Twitter @SpaceX.
  • Watch videos of SpaceX’s successful and failed launches on the company’s YouTube channel.
  • Check out NASA’s SpaceX blog for the latest news on collaborations between the two entities.