SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launch on Friday did something much bigger than popping a dummy payload into space: it lit a fuse beneath the next era of space exploration, with commercial efforts alongside government ones.
The Falcon 9's launch defeated the odds (which are historically stacked against successful first-launches of rockets) and really has stirred up a lot of excitement. And some negative commentary, since it signifies the first real step toward the President's view of a more commercial enterprise-centric US space endeavor. The hope is that by investing billions of dollars in companies that fall outside the traditional aerospace/defense and space business circle, innovative strategies may be created to dramatically reduce the cost of getting to space, as well as relieving some of the tax dollar burden the government faces with the successful, but giant, NASA.
Who are the companies and individuals to watch in this new race?
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX)
SpaceX is one of the two companies NASA selected last year to provide cargo lift capabilities to support ongoing ISS work after the retirement of the Space Shuttles. The company has around a thousand employees and is privately owned. Founded in 2002, its most high-profile staff member is CEO and founder Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who made much of his money by co-creating PayPal, and who subsequently has lost much of it in the efforts to get his high-profile Tesla Motors electric car business off the ground.
Its launch of Falcon 9 last Friday places SpaceX at the top of the list of promising new space companies, and personal attention from President Obama certainly helps this. Despite several technical glitches (an uncommanded roll of the rocket's second stage, and incomplete parachute deployment and resulting impact damage to the first stage) the dummy payload was pushed into almost precisely the required orbit—demonstrating that a small private corporation can now successfully rival the industrial-military complex in being able to loft satellites into space.
Next steps for the Falcon program: A second launch, possibly in September, with a dummy Dragon crew module. This would demonstrate that SpaceX's rockets could be human-rated one day, and take up some ferrying duties of astronauts to the ISS.
If SpaceX can pop cargo, and possibly people, into orbit, then Bigelow Space may be the company to build privately-funded space stations for them to live in. The company was founded in 1998 by Robert Bigelow, multi-millionaire owner of the hotel chain Budget Suites of America. To date Bigelow has funded his space business with over $180 million, and has committed to spending as much as $500 million by 2015 in order to get working hardware into space. This money alone makes Bigelow Space very serious contenders in the new space industry.
After founding the company, Bigelow licensed some novel technology from NASA after it had been abandoned due to budget cuts. The tech was behind the ISS's Transhab module, an inflatable habitation system that built on decades of NASA research into non rigid-metallic alternatives to conventional space hardware. Bigelow has since developed and improved the tech, which relies on multiple layers of foam, bulletproof vectran fabric and aluminum for its strength and micro-meterorite resistance, and has even tested two small orbital modules in launches on converted Russian missiles. It's now such a viable alternative to heavy, cramped and expensive traditional space modules that NASA's budget for 2010 includes scope to connect a Bigelow expandable habitat to the ISS to test it out.
Bigelow's plans are bigger than this, though, and detailed schemes exist to loft inflatable habitats measuring hundreds of cubic meters into space. As well as offering amazing scientific benefits, this scale of habitat would make a commercial space hotel an affordable possibility. Bigelow has reserved a 2014 launch opportunity on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but hasn't disclosed the payload.
Blue Origin is perhaps the most highly secretive company in this list, and very little information is in the public domain. The company was set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and his money, along with some $3.7 million in 2009 from NASA's Commercial Crew Development program has propelled it along since its creation in 2000.
Blue Origin's Blue Shepherd space craft has undergone a number of successful test flights, and it appears it'll be ready to enter the commercial sub-orbital space tourism game in 2011, with manned flights in 2012. Ultimately the company will develop orbit-capable hardware, but some of its tech has already been interesting to NASA as an alternative crew-escape system to the designs that are currently used.
You may never have heard of Orbital Sciences, despite the fact its revenues topped $1.1 billion back in 2008. The company was founded in 1982 by David Thompson, Bruce Ferguson and Scott Webster, and has had many successes in space and missile technology since then.
It's the other company tapped by NASA to develop cargo-capable rockets to supply the ISS, and it's also responsible for the launch-abort escape rockets of the only surviving bit of the Constellation program, the Orion manned capsule. In March of 2010 Orbital bought General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems Satellite Division for $55 million, retaining the 325 employees and planning on using the tech to further the company's space science and engineering expertise.
Orbital's future is bright, and though some of its missions will be high-profile, like those supporting the ISS, other parts of its business (like its Missile Defense Agency test launches) may ensure it doesn't occupy the same sort of limelight that SpaceX or the other enterprises here will.