On Monday, January 7th, 2008, at the JSC All Hands, the NASA Administrator was asked to comment on Commercial Space. As he has done in many forums, he shared the analogy of how the commercial airline industry was spurred on by the investment made by the government to transport cargo (primarily mail) which in turn leads to commercial airline travel. With this as a backdrop, he reiterated his commitment to the investment that NASA is making in the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program for transporting cargo to the International Space Station. His stated desire is to get the agency focused on the business of Space exploration and to eventually buy services to low Earth orbit.
I applaud this strategy and at the same time find it interesting how split the space exploration community is on the viability of commercial access to space. Critics believe that as long as we launch on rockets, the commercial community will never be able to make it safe enough for access by the general public and will therefore have a difficult time in making a profit. Alternatively, there are reports by companies like Futron that project the potential space tourism market.
Regardless of on which side of the fence you find yourself, there was one compelling statement made last year by a consultant who does scenario planning for various organizations and industries. When we asked him what he thought about Commercial Space, he stated that he couldn’t comment on their success, but he could state that the collective amount of discretionary funding available by the “New Space” community exceeds the NASA budget. He also stated that they are focused on only one goal, access to space and with that amount of investment focused on one goal; it is only a matter of time before they are successful. So what are some of the investments being made outside of NASA?
Commercial Space Ports
In 2004 MSNBC published this map of the current and future space ports. Since then New Mexico’s Spaceport America was approved by voters and in December, 2005 Sir Richard Branson announced that New Mexico will be Virgin Galactic’s world headquarters. The list continues to grow including the following locations Sheboygan, Wisconsin and Blue Origin’s goal to open a space port in West Texas to the list of space ports in the US.
Internationally, Spaceports are being developed in the most unlikely of places. Pictured to the left is an artist’s illustration of Space Adventures’ concept for a spaceport outside Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Virgin Galactic also recently announced that it would host sub orbital flights into the Northern lights from Spaceport Sweden. Along with Spaceport Scotland, Spaceport Singapore (shown below) is expected to provide suborbital spaceflights, parabolic aircraft flights and other space tourism experiences.
Commercial Access to Space
Space Frontier maintains a growing list of the next Generation of Space companies that are entering the commercial space market. The list includes the New Space Launch Service Companies like SpaceX(COTS award recipient), Airlaunch LLC, Armadillo Space, and Blue Origin. Their list also includes Companies Marketing Russian/Ukrainian Launchers and Space & Zero-G Tourism and Training Companies. Among the more interesting ones are those focused on tourism like Space Adventures and Japan’s first space travel company, Spacetopia. Also intriguing is the company whose goal is to develop the premier crew training program for suborbital flight, Orbital Commerce project. Another growing list on their website is the Infrastructure/Subsystems Companies like Bigelow Aerospace, with whom JSC has an active Space Act agreement to share our expertise and knowledge.
Yet even their list is not complete. There are many more interested in ensuring a continual presence in low Earth orbit and beyond. JSC alumni and astronaut, Leroy Chiao, is working with Excalibur Almaz, who plans on offering week-long flights that deposit tourists at modernized, Russian-designed space stations. Or one of my favorites,The Galactic Suite Space Resort that will “provide a fully integrated space tourism experience by weaving together an astronaut training process with a relaxing time in a tropical paradise island as the preparation for this space journey.” There are also those with their sights beyond LEO, as witnessed by 4Frontiers Corporation, an emerging space commerce company focused on the settlement of Mars. Will they all be successful? Probably not. But what if a handful are successful? Or even just one commercial provider to sub orbit or orbit turns a profit? What will be the ripple effect be to NASA? What impact, if any, will it have on our role in the Human Exploration of Space?
Next time, the International Space community.
Sharing the Vision –
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office