The Emerging Private Space Industry


The Emerging Private Space Industry

Government space agencies of the United states and Soviet Union were the trailblazers of spaceflight and exploration and they sparked the so-called “Space Age” with the launch of Sputnik 1 way back in 1957. Since then, the development of space exploration technology has been largely funded by governments. Space agencies such as the China National Space Administration and the European Space Agency founded later, followed in their predecessors’ footsteps.

But this landscape is now changing, private corporations are planning and making an entrance into space. They are driven by the profit incentive and with promises of cheaper spaceflight technology and the expansion of humanity to space beyond Earth. This breaks up the monopoly of governments on space. And since these private companies seek profit, in a free market, this will eventually lower the costs of space technology by a significant margin. The drive for profit and competition is what lowers costs of products with time. This would make commercialization of space and human expansion to it economically viable.

Additionally, private companies also have a motive to make spaceflight safer. Like any other product or service, they will have to make it reasonably safe to market it to the consumers. Where governments failed, private companies will triumph because the governments do not see their astronauts as consumers but civil servants, like police officers or military personnel.

This isn’t just a theory; many private space organizations are engaged in exactly that. Case in point, Google’s Lunar XPRIZE, which aimed to prompt exploration of the Moon by private companies. Competing for this prize, a private Israeli company SpaceIL, launched a spacecraft to the Moon, earlier this month. Albeit it crashed on the lunar surface, it was the first private spacecraft ever to achieve that milestone.

Many entrepreneurs like Elon Musk also have sustainable plans for building human settlements on Mars – the closest Earth-like planet in our solar system.

Private satellites in Earth’s orbit

The US Communications Satellite Act Of 1962 paved the way for commercial businesses to own and run their own satellites. The same year saw the launch of the first commercial satellite, Telstar 1. In the years following that, many different private companies have put their own satellites in orbit. Intelsat 1, Orbita, Anik A, and Iridium satellite constellation are some names worth mentioning.  

Satellites are mainly used for broadcasting television and radio signals, and navigational purposes. And MEASAT and XM Radio Satellite were the pioneers of broadcasting satellite technology.

Private lunar missions

Google offered $30 million dollars in prizes to incentivize private entities to develop cost-effective spaceflight technology to send to the moon. SpaceIL, an Israeli company, competed for the prize and launched the first privately funded spacecraft, Beresheet, towards the Moon. Unfortunately, the mission failed, and the spacecraft crashed onto the lunar surface. Even though was a failure, it costed a tiny portion of most government funded lunar missions.

Google XPRIZE also led many different companies to develop sustainable plans for lunar exploration. Companies like iSpace and PTscientists plan to visit the Moon and plan to mine it for oxygen, water, and hydrogen that could potentially help with venturing deeper into our solar system.

Not only that, but NASA has also picked several private companies to compete to win $2 billion contracts for lunar exploration.

Space Transportation

The commercial space industry launches private and government satellites into orbit. Conestega I pioneered as the first privately funded rocket to reach the orbit back in the early 80s.

In 2000, the first privately funded manned mission visited the Russian space station, Mir.  This mission, Soyuz TM-30, marked the dawn of private companies taking consumers into space.

Since then, many private entities have sent rockets into space. SpaceX has launched Falcon 1 into space and has also successfully launched rockets to recover the cargo carrying spacecraft, Dragon Capsule. They have also taken US astronauts to the ISS and back. Furthermore, they’re the first private company to develop two families of reusable rockets.

SpaceX – the first private entity to offer space shuttle services

NASA announced in the year 2005 that it would welcome private space companies to offer shuttle services and various types of contracts would be available for open bidding for those who had the penchant and the technological leverage to cater to such services. Over the last few years, companies such as the SpaceX aka Space Exploration Technologies Corporation which is based out of Hawthorne in California has been vying for contracts.

In May 22, 2012, SpaceX became the first among the many aspiring private space companies to send a supply ship into the orbit. The launch of Dragon, which is an unmanned rocket, is especially significant since it is not only carrying 1000 pounds of provisions for the space station but it is also meant to dock with the space station and undergo strict orbital maneuvering, something that space tourism does not stringently demand. What this implies for space tourism is that if private space companies like SpaceX can live up to the strict requisites and modus operandi of NASA and international space stations, they can certainly be safe, capable, and viable for space tourism.

SpaceX has created history and after the successful launch of Dragon, it can be safely concluded that the initiative of letting in private space companies and trying to create a private space industry is just not a figment of imagination or unsustainable propaganda but a very viable and perhaps an ideal solution for the future. As had several politicians and administrators at NASA repeatedly pointed out that space tourism and even NASA’s very own space programs can become a healthier, economic and better affair if private space companies come into the fray which would have nothing to do with bureaucracy and other shortcomings that are unavoidable in a federal setup such as NASA.

Mining for resources

Different celestial objects, such as asteroids, comets, and moons can potentially be mined for valuable natural resources. These resources can be used to create more materials and fuel or simply transported back to Earth. Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are private entities engaged in this research for mining precious metals like gold, platinum, silver, iron, nickel, titanium, aluminum and so on.

Space tourism becoming a reality

It was only a matter of time that space tourism became much more than science fiction and the subplots of summer blockbusters. While the idea of space tourism had been conceived decades back yet the potential or viability of such a concept was not clearly established. With NASA’s last space shuttles retiring in the last few years, major corporations had a keen eye into the evolution of a new industry, the private space industry. It was noted by experts that unless private space companies get to cash in on the space missions that are launched by NASA from time to time and get into the shuttle service to transfer cargo and various loads to and from the international space stations, not much would evolve in space tourism.