Private spaceflight is flight above 100 km (62 mi) Earth altitude conducted by and paid for by an entity other than a government. In the early decades of the Space Age, the government space agencies of the Soviet Union and United States pioneered space technology in collaboration with affiliated design bureaus and private enterprises. Later on, large defense contractors began to develop and operate space launch systems, derived from government rockets, and commercial satellites. Private spaceflight in Earth orbit includes communications satellites, satellite television, satellite radio and orbital space tourism. Recently, entrepreneurs have begun designing and deploying competitive spacesystems to the national-monopoly governmental systems of the early decades of the space age. Successes to date include flying suborbital spaceplanes and launching lightweight orbital rockets. Planned private spaceflights beyond Earth orbit include solar sailing prototypes, deep space burial and personal spaceflights around the Moon. A private orbital habitat prototype is already in Earth orbit, with larger versions to follow.
History of commercial space transportation
During the early years of spaceflight only nation states had the resources to develop and fly spacecraft. Both the U.S. space program and Soviet space program were operated using mainly military pilots as astronauts. During this period, no commercial space launches were available to private operators, and no private organization was able to offer space launches. Eventually, private organizations were able to both offer and purchase space launches, thus beginning the period of private spaceflight.
The first phase of private space operation was the launch of the first commercial communications satellites. The U.S. Communications Satellite Act of 1962 opened the way to commercial consortia owning and operating their own satellites, although these were still launched on state-owned launch vehicles.
On March 26, 1980, the European Space Agency created Arianespace, the world's first commercial space transportation company. Arianespace produces, operates and markets the Ariane launcher family. By 1995 Arianespace lofted its 100th satellite and by 1997 the Ariane rocket had its 100th launch. Arianespace's 23 shareholders represent scientific, technical, financial and political entities from 10 different European countries.
From the beginning of the Shuttle program until the Challenger disaster in 1986, it was the policy of the United States that NASA be the public-sector provider of U.S. launch capacity to the world market. Initially NASA subsidized satellite launches with the intention of eventually pricing Shuttle service for the commercial market at long-run marginal cost.
On October 30, 1984, United States President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Act. This enabled an American industry of private operators of expendable launch systems. Prior to the signing of this law, all commercial satellite launches in the United States were limited to NASA's Space Shuttle.
On November 5, 1990, United States President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Launch Services Purchase Act. The Act, in a complete reversal of the earlier Space Shuttle monopoly, ordered NASA to purchase launch services for its primary payloads from commercial providers whenever such services are required in the course of its activities.
Commercial launches outnumbered government launches at the Eastern Test Range in 1997.
The Russian government sold part of its stake in RSC Energia to private investors in 1994. Energia together with Khrunichev constituted most of the Russian manned space program. In 1997, the Russian government sold off enough of its share to lose the majority position.
In 1996 the United States government selected Lockheed Martin and Boeing to each develop Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) to compete for launch contracts and provide assured access to space. The government's acquisition strategy relied on the strong commercial viability of both vehicles to lower unit costs. This anticipated market demand did not materialize, but both the Delta IV and Atlas V EELVs remain in active service.
Since 1995 Khrunichev's Proton rocket is marketed through International Launch Services while the Soyuz rocket is marketed via Starsem. Energia builds the Soyuz rocket and owns part of the Sea Launch project which flies the Ukrainian Zenit rocket.
In 2003 Arianespace joined with Boeing Launch Services and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to create the Launch Services Alliance. In 2005, continued weak commercial demand for EELV launches drove Lockheed Martin and Boeing to propose a joint venture called the United Launch Alliance to service the United States government launch market.
Today many commercial space transportation companies offer launch services to satellite companies and government space organizations around the world. In 2005 there were 18 total commercial launches and 37 non-commercial launches. Russia flew 44% of commercial orbital launches, while Europe had 28% and the United States had 6%.
Private spaceflight companies
The space transport business serves primarily national government and large commercial customer segments. Launches of government payloads, including military, civilian and scientific satellites, is the largest market segment at nearly $100 billion a year. This segment is dominated by domestic favorites such as the United Launch Alliance for U.S. government payloads and Arianespace for European satellites. The commercial payload segment, valued at under $3 billion a year, is dominated by Arianespace, with over 50% of the market segment, followed by Russian launchers. See a complete list of launch systems.
Commercial Orbital Transportation Services
On January 18, 2006 NASA announced an opportunity for commercial providers to demonstrate orbital transportation services. NASA plans to spend $500 million through 2010 to finance development of private sector capability to transport payloads to the International Space Station (ISS). This is more challenging than extant commercial space transportation because it requires precision orbit insertion, rendezvous and possibly docking with another spacecraft. The commercial vendors will compete in specific service areas. NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin has stated that without affordable commercial orbital transportation services (COTS), the agency will not have enough funds remaining to achieve the objectives of the Vision for Space Exploration.
In August 2006, NASA announced that two fledgling aerospace companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, had been awarded $278m and $207, respectively, under the COTS program. NASA anticipates that COTS services to ISS will be necessary through at least 2015. The NASA Administrator has suggested that space transportation services procurement may be expanded to orbital fuel depots and lunar surface deliveries should the first phase of COTS prove successful.
After it transpired that Rocketplane Kister was failing to meet its deadlines, the NASA terminated their contract in August 2008, after only $32m had been spent. Several months later, in December 2008, NASA announced that they have awarded the remaining $170m to the trusted Orbital Sciences Corporation to develop resupply services to the ISS.
Emerging personal spaceflight
Before 2004 no privately operated manned spaceflight had ever occurred. The only private individuals to journey to space went as space tourists in the Space Shuttle or on Russian Soyuz flights to Mir or the International Space Station.
All private individuals who flew to space before Dennis Tito's self-financed International Space Station visit in 2001 had been sponsored by their home governments. Those trips include US Congressman Bill Nelson's January 1986 flight on the Space Shuttle Columbia and Japanese television reporter Toyohiro Akiyama's 1990 flight to the Mir Space Station.
The Ansari X PRIZE was intended to stimulate private investment in the development of spaceflight technologies. The June 21, 2004 test flight of SpaceShipOne, a contender for the X PRIZE, was the first human spaceflight in a privately developed and operated vehicle.
On September 27, 2004, following the success of SpaceShipOne, Richard Branson, owner of Virgin and Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne's designer, announced that Virgin Galactic had licensed the craft's technology, and were planning commercial space flights in 2.5 to 3 years. A fleet of five craft (SpaceShipTwo, launched from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane) is to be constructed, and flights will be offered at around $200,000 each, although Branson has said he plans to use this money to make flights more affordable in the long term.
In December 2004, United States President George W. Bush signed in to law the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. The Act resolved the regulatory ambiguity surrounding private spaceflights and is designed to promote the development of the emerging U.S. commercial human space flight industry.
On July 12, 2006, Bigelow Aerospace launched the Genesis I, a subscale pathfinder of an orbital space station module. Genesis II was launched on June 28, 2007, and there are plans for additional prototypes to be launched in preparation for the production model BA 330 spacecraft.
On September 28, 2006, Jim Benson, SpaceDev founder, announced he was founding Benson Space Company with the intention of being first to market with the safest and lowest cost suborbital personal spaceflight launches, using the vertical takeoff and horizontal landing Dream Chaser vehicle based on the NASA HL-20 Personnel Launch System vehicle.
Failed spaceflight ventures
In the 1990s the projection of a significant demand for communications satellite launches attracted the development of a number of commercial space launch providers. The launch demand largely vanished when some of the largest satellite constellations, such as 288 satellite Teledesic network, were never built. The historic tendency of NASA to compete against the private sector and the Department of Defense's preference for the traditional military industrial complex has discouraged many new space launch ventures.
In 1996 NASA selected Lockheed Martin Skunk Works to build the X-33 VentureStar prototype for a single stage to orbit (SSTO) reusable launch vehicle. In 1999, the subscale X-33 prototype's composite liquid hydrogen fuel tank failed during testing. At project termination on March 31, 2001, NASA had funded $912 million of this wedge shaped spacecraft while Lockheed Martin financed $357 million of it. The VentureStar was to have been a full-scale commercial space transport operated by Lockheed Martin.
In 1997 Beal Aerospace proposed the BA-2, a low-cost heavy-lift commercial launch vehicle. In March 4, 2000, the BA-2 project tested the largest liquid rocket engine built since the Saturn V. In October 2000, Beal Aerospace ceased operations citing a decision by NASA and the Department of Defense to commit themselves to the development of the competing government-financed EELV program.
In 1998 Rotary Rocket proposed the Roton, a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) piloted Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) space transport. A full scale Roton Atmospheric Test Vehicle flew three times in 1999. After spending tens of millions of dollars in development the Roton failed to secure launch contracts and Rotary Rocket ceased operations in 2001.
Many have speculated on where private spaceflight may go in the near future. One possibility is for paid suborbital tourism on craft like SpaceShipOne. Additionally, suborbital spacecraft have applications for faster intercontinental package delivery and passenger flight.
Private orbital spaceflight, space stations
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to be first launched in mid 2009, is designed to be man-rated. This would be the first American orbital vehicle since the Space Shuttle to receive this designation, in principle allowing the vehicle to transport paying customers to orbit. Plans and a full-scale prototype for the SpaceX Dragon, a manned capsule carrying up to 7 passengers, were announced on March 6, 2006.
An early flight of the Falcon 9 is planned to carry Sundancer, the prototype expandable space complex module (based on the formerly NASA-owned Transhab design) constructed by Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow Aerospace expects such modules to be used for activities like microgravity research, space manufacturing, and space tourism (with modules serving as orbital hotels). To promote private manned launch efforts, Bigelow has offered the $50M America's Space Prize for the first US-based privately funded team to launch a manned reusable spacecraft to orbit on or before January 10, 2010.
On-orbit propellant depots
In a presentation given November 15, 2005, to the 52nd Annual Conference of the American Astronautical Society, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin suggested that establishing an on-orbit propellant depot is, "Exactly the type of enterprise which should be left to industry and to the marketplace." At the Space Technology and Applications International Forum in 2007, Dallas Bienhoff of Boeing made a presentation detailing the benefits of propellant depots.
Some have speculated on the profitability of mining metal from asteroids. According to some estimates, a one kilometer-diameter asteroid would contain 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tons of platinum; the platinum alone would have a value of more than $500 billion at current prices. While the potential rewards from asteroid mining are indeed huge, the technical challenges are equally large and it seems likely that the private sector will wait for the publicly funded space program to solve them (e.g. by establishing experimental mines on the Moon).
Energy from space
Future energy development may use energy sources in space and on other planets. Examples include Helium-3 extraction from the Moon, and solar power satellite systems. See space manufacturing for more on extraterrestrial economic development.
A Space Elevator system is a possible launch system, currently under investigation by at least one private venture. There are concerns over cost, general feasibility and some political issues. On the plus side the potential to scale the system to accommodate traffic would (in theory) be greater than some other alternatives. Some factions contend that a space elevator — if successful — would not supplant existing launch solutions but complement them.
Published in July 2009.
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