The Top Big Ideas in Commercial Spaceflight

Business is booming for the commercial space industry. Yes, that’s right. NASA may have retired the Space Shuttle, but new life is growing amongst the debris. Private space companies with entrepreneurial spirit—and some with NASA funding—are leading the way in commercial spaceflight.

SpaceX has launched a spacecraft called “Dragon” which has already orbited the Earth, and the company plans for a manned mission to the International Space Station in the next four years.

The SpaceX Dragon

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell spoke at this year’s National Space Symposium in Colorado. “Our mission is to open space to more people and provide private access for scientists. We expect our first flight to be in 18 months or so,” Shotwell said.

Shotwell commented that the SpaceX focus on reliability and cost right from the get-go has made it a very affordable option. “We can price GEO launches at half the cost of other providers,” she said. “We don’t have to work with cost legacy.”

When asked where she thinks the commercial space industry will be in 50 years time Shotwell said that “we will have colonies on the Moon and Mars.”

At the same time, Sierra Nevada Corporation—a huge recipient of NASA funding—is developing a commercial crew space transportation system called the Dream Chaser. The Dream Chaser can transport humans to low-Earth orbit and then return to Earth with a runway landing. But unlike commercial airlines it doesn’t have large side wings—so it can hang in Earth’s orbit. Hot on SNC’s tail is Boeing, which is working on building an Apollo-style rocket system.

A less well know and smaller company, Bigelow Aerospace, is garnering  attention from NASA. Robert Bigelow, president and founder of the company, made his fortune in hotels and then switched to aerospace. He’s sunk $75 million of his own money into Bigelow Aerospace and plans to spend close to $500 million by the end of 2015.

Bigelow has taken the old idea of inflatable or “expandable” space habitats (originally developed by NASA) and redesigned it. Inflatable or “expandable” habitats are “folded” at launch and are much lighter (think cheaper) than traditional spacecrafts to launch. In space they can expand to create roomy capsules.

Bigelow plans to lease out small space stations or habitats made of one or more inflatable modules to different research communities or corporations.

From one excentric millionnaire to the next, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic just finished testing feathered flight reentry on SpaceShipTwo and  plans to open up its doors to space “tourists” in the next 18 months. You can book your flight now on Virgin Galactic’s website or use an “accredited space agent.”

“We plan to fly millions of people into space,” said George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic. “We have proven that there is a market [for space tourism] at the $200,000 [round-trip, per person] range and over time the price will come down significantly.”

At the National Space Symposium Whitesides also hinted at Virgin Galactic’s plans to improve the modes of transportation here on Earth. “There is a market to improve the speed of transportation. Speed capability has not changed since jet propulsion,” Whitesides said. “Down the road there will be much faster point-to-point transportation.

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