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Will Commercial Companies Be the Next to Take on Space Travel?

Would you sign up if the founder of Amazon offered to send you into space? How about the man behind PayPal or the engineers at Boeing? Let's explore some of the commercial companies who are the major players in NASA's efforts to once again send crewed missions into space.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #173

SpaceX and the Dragon Crew Spacecraft

SpaceX, the space exploration company founded by PayPal and Tesla’s Elon Musk, was the first private company to deliver cargo to the ISS and became the second to receive a contract from NASA for $2.6 billion to ready its Dragon Crew spacecraft to carry astronauts as well.

Both the Boeing and SpaceX contracts will require that each company demonstrate that their spacecraft can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock at the ISS in order to receive certification from NASA. Once certified, NASA expects to conduct between two and six crewed trips to the ISS per spacecraft. In case of an emergency, the spacecraft could also potentially be used for life saving missions for the ISS astronauts.

A key component to making the exploration of space sustainable is designing spacecraft that are reusable. 

A key component to making the exploration of space sustainable is designing spacecraft that are reusable. Many are destroyed once they are sent hurtling back to Earth and so it has been a challenge to re-land rockets on Earth once their space missions are completed. SpaceX came very close to landing its Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform in April 2015, but ultimately was unsuccessful.

Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin

Another space exploration effort making headlines in the area of reusability is that led by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. In late November of 2015, in his first tweet, Bezos announced that his new company, Blue Origin, had successfully landed its New Shepard vehicle safely on Earth after a space flight. New Shepard reached Mach 3.72 and an altitude of just shy of 330,000 ft (or just over 100.5 kilometers). Upon return, the vehicle was slowed to ~4 miles per hour before touching back down on terra firma.

Although the landing proved an extremely impressive feat, so far the Blue Origin rocket has only been used as a suborbital spacecraft and thus is not yet powerful enough to put people into space. For comparison, the SpaceX vehicles are designed to reach distances of >90,000 kilometers as opposed to the 100 kilometers traveled by New Shepard.

However, it is clear that Blue Origin is likely headed that way. Bezos ended his announcement of the historic event with the latin phrase Gradatim Ferociter which can be translated as “step by step, ferociously”. Blue Origin has a nonfunded contract NASA to continue to develop their reusable rockets, and Bezos has said that he looks forward to having a press conference in space in the future.

Others Players in the Commercial Space Flight Industry

The commercial space flight industry is growing and evolving extremely fast, especially given the patience (and substantial initial investment) required to turn an eventual profit. The space tourism start-up, Virgin Galactic, founded by Virgin mogul Richard Branson has made plans to take paying customers 62 miles into the stratosphere for a bargain price of $250,000 a ride. So far >700 customers have signed up despite there being to timeline for the travel to start. (The company also had a setback with the fatal crash during a test flight of their Spaceship Two in October of 2014.) Planetary Sciences, an effort backed by Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, aims to send missions to asteroids in order to mine them for elements and minerals that are rare on Earth.

In addition to its crew contract, Boeing further has a joint venture with Lockheed Martin called the United Launch Alliance, which has several government contracts to launch national security satellites. They are developing a new, cheaper Vulcan rocket expected in 2019. The ULA also successfully launched a GPS satellite in November, so we likely have them to thank next time we punch an address into our smart phone to get directions.

As even more companies focus on more nearby space exploration efforts, including Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket to supply the ISS and Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft with the eventual goal of deeper space exploration, NASA is free to focus on longer mission goals, like the travel of humans to Mars. In fact, NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently announced that astronaut applications would be accepted starting December 14, 2015 (that’s today!) for those wanting to make space travel history. Are you up for it?

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.