It is rather hard to believe that an entire decade has rolled on since the first private manned vehicle released the surly bonds of Earth and flew into space, a realm where heretofore only governments had trod. It was the beginning of a new age, and much has come to pass since then. As with all prognostications, my thoughts of the time were both more and less than the reality of 2014 in commercial space.
I would certainly have been surprised by two things, one of which I would have predicted and one of which I did not even imagine. I am sure at the time I would with certainty have said someone would be flying passengers by now. I would have been equally surprised had someone told me I would be a member of the XCOR Aerospace team working on the Lynx space plane with my own desk in the same location from which I filed my stories that day, in the same room which I had pitched my air bed the night before the big event. I would likewise have been happily surprised to find George Whitesides, our then new Executive Director at the National Space Society, who appears in some of my photos that day, would now be CEO of Virgin Galactic.
So what has happened in the ensuing ten years? For one, SpaceX is now making deliveries to the International Space Station on a regular basis with its Dragon Cargo ship, lifted via its Falcon 9 rocket. They are now sucking up the launch vehicle market, once a near American preserve, that Old Space and their political cronies proved incapable of holding. Noone, not even the Chinese or the French can compete with SpaceX’s prices. Why? No one ever before built a launch vehicle from the ground up to be viable without government cost plus contracts to foot the bill. SpaceX did take government contracts, but they worked through fixed price commercial style contracting. Their startup capital was private venture money that came from the pockets of Elon Musk and friends of his. He put every cent he had on the line and very nearly lost it. He made it through the early Falcon 1 test failures (which I live blogged here as well) on a wing and a prayer. Those failures were pretty much an inevitable part of learning to do something hard in a different way. Elon stuck his own tuckus way out over the edge… and he won.
Virgin Galactic, the company that will be flying SpaceShipTwo, the follow on to the vehicle launched that day ten years ago, has had its share of difficulties, but the company is well funded and they are plodding along towards the finish line for a suborbital tourist vehicle. XCOR is doing pretty much the same, although with a more ‘right stuff’ flight experience.
SpaceX unveiled its Dragon II capsule a couple weeks ago. They will carry out escape system testing this year and will likely be in manned test flight next year. By 2016-17 they will be a Spaceline that is delivering passengers to the International Space Station and the soon to be launched Bigelow Aerospace space station. Robert Bigelow has been ready for years now… but it did not make business sense to create a destination in space until someone could provide a regular taxi service. When the manned Dragon goes operational, I expect his extensively space tested module technology (two ‘small’ ones are currently in orbit) will go up very soon thereafter.
SpaceX has also been working towards a re-usable first stage. They have succeeded in a liftoff, flight to 1000 meters and a precise landing of a Falcon 9R first stage on the spot in Texas from which it lifted. They recently returned one of those stages from a for-hire launch and brought it to a hover over the North Atlantic waves. Later this year they will fly one from a pad at Spaceport America in New Mexico, perhaps as high as 100,000 feet, and then bring it to a landing. Next year they plan to bring one back from a commercial flight to a dry land site. It will then be checked out for re-usability and possibly reflown. They expect ten flights per stage but even if they only got two, it would halve the capital cost of a launch. If they get the full ten, we are looking at a total collapse of Old Space, a Reardon Steel moment. The only survivors will be those few protected by the Wesley Mouch’s of the world.
Later this year, SpaceX will be launching the first Falcon 9 Heavy. It will have the largest cargo capacity available on Earth and that has only ever been outdone by one vehicle, the US Saturn V Moon rocket. One might make a case to put the Space Shuttle and the short lived Buran in that exalted class, but their actual payload to orbit was mostly vehicle weight.
So much is happening in the New Space sector in June 2014 or is scheduled over the next one to two years that I would need to write a far longer article than this to come close to a proper treatment of the topic. I have not even mentioned most of the companies in our industry. Sadly there is also much I cannot talk about as I am drawing my wages in the field and that places limitations on me. If you want more details on XCOR… you can go read the company blog which can be found via the XCOR home page.
And now… a trip down memory lane. Rand Simberg just wrote his retrospective and since he and I were traveling together for that momentous day, here are the stories I filed as well, plus one other by Johnathan Pearce. The pictorial is at the end. There are a lot of fond memories there!