Today, countries and companies small and large jockey for position in the suborbital track, and many analysts think that's a good thing. Privatized rockets and space stations open up orbital access to nations, businesses and even people. With deep enough pockets, they can skip the economic and political risks of establishing their own space program and, for a relative pittance, flag down a parabolic taxi, book lodgings on a space station or secure cargo room for a satellite, experiment or instruments.
NASA, meanwhile, is leveraging its resources to jump-start the process. In particular, its commercial crew initiative, which supports space ambitions at Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada Corp., continues to pass milestone after milestone. In preparation for the next phase, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, the space agency issued a draft request for proposals during the summer of 2013 [sources: Chang; NASA].
For the new space race, this decade could well play out the way the late 1990s and early 2000s did for the Internet: as a time of uncertainty, ebullient creativity and, ultimately, economic reality. Dozens of companies are in the running, so we've handicapped our top picks based on who claims the most prestigious pedigree, who boasts the best track record and who simply outclasses the field.
The X Prize and Other Awards
Sometimes, inspiring excellence and innovation means setting an audacious goal and backing it up with a pile of cash. Take the nonprofit X Prize Foundation's Ansari X Prize for affordable spaceflight. It parlayed a $10 million award into more than $100 million in commercial space development [source: X Prize Foundation].
Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the prize in 2004 for assembling the first private team to "build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface, twice within two weeks" [source: X Prize Foundation]. Rutan subsequently helped Virgin Galactic develop its passenger space plane system.
Examples of other awards driving the new space industry include NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which provides $200,000-$2 million to support innovations in areas of agency interest, and the Heinlein Prize, which honors the eponymous science fiction author and rewards progress in commercial space activities.
Meanwhile, the X Prize Foundation continues to incentivize breakthroughs in space and on Earth. The Google Lunar X Prize will award $30 million to "the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon and have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface and send images and data back to the Earth." NASA has ponied up an additional $30 million in contract funds for winning lunar bots that meet key objectives [source:X Prize Foundation].
Of course, there's always inflation to deal with. Just ask our next private space company.
While the Henry Fords of the new space age compete to build an affordable spaceship, Robert T. Bigelow plans to build a place for passengers to hang their helmets: an inflatable, privately owned-and-operated space station.
Lightweight inflatables get around rockets' limited cargo space by packing a hefty habitat in a petite package. NASA floated the idea for years. In fact, the design for Bigelow's billowing bungalows derives from the space agency's patented TransHab, a resilient, inflatable habitat engineered for possible applications on Mars or the moon.
In January 2013, NASA announced a $17.8 million contract with the company to supply a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to the International Space Station (ISS). The module, which measures 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter (4 meters and 3 meters), with about 560 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of interior space, packs down to about 1/10 that size during transport and, unlike solid structures, should not puncture when struck by micrometeorites [source: Chang].
Bigelow has already placed unmanned stations in orbit and plans to park one large enough to house a dozen people by late 2016 -- assuming the company can round up rockets to carry them [sources: Chang; Chang].
A little more than $26 million per person reserves digs for 60 days, transportation included. Still, it's a steal compared to the more than $70 million NASA pays for a single seat on a Soyuz spacecraft headed to the ISS [sources: Morring; Wall].
Where would outrageous capitalist ventures be without the wealthy?
Rich people don't just support the $50,000-diamond-encrusted-Bluetooth-headset market; they're also the consumers who, back in 1984, bought the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X cell phone, a 2-pound (0.9-kilogram) brick costing $3,995 ($8,000-$11,000 in 2012 money). In other words, the development cycle, improvement, marketing and sales that gradually produce smaller, better and cheaper products often begin with affluent early adopters.
For now at least, space tourism remains the province of the Midases and market mavens among us. As of January 2012, only seven private citizens had flown to space on their own dime, and each shelled out tens of millions of dollars for his or her golden ticket to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket [source: Chang]. Nevertheless, their resolve to leverage their riches on space travel suggests such a market exists -- a necessary first step toward eventually establishing affordable spaceflight.
Meanwhile, who has the deep-as a-black-hole's-gravity-well pockets necessary to build these space dynasties? You guessed it: the super-rich, founders and CEOs of such companies as Microsoft, Amazon, PayPal and Virgin Records. So, as you read on, don't be surprised if you run across some familiar names. Speaking of which ...
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is about as much of a shrinking violet as Donald Trump, so it comes as little surprise that Virgin Galactic has established its brand as nearly synonymous with space tourism. But what will a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo (SS2) be like?
Here's a sneak peek: After prepping for 2-3 days, travelers will board SS2 -- a 60-foot (18-meter), six-person rocket glider slung below VirginMothership Eve. This dual-fuselage aircraft, which stretches 140 feet (43 meters) from wingtip to wingtip, will climb to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) before releasing SS2. SS2 will then kick in its rockets and hurtle to the edge of space (around 62 miles, or 100 kilometers) on a parabolic flight. After five minutes of weightlessness, the space plane will "feather," using drag to slow its re-entry to 70,000 feet (21,336 meters); from there it will glide to Earth and land airplane-style [sources: Chang; Chang].
As of September 2013, SS2 had tested well, successfully detaching from its carrier plane and rocketing to Mach 1.2 twice. Billionaire Branson says its first spaceflights will take place by early next year. Travel agents are standing by to take your reservations. A mere $250,000 secures your place alongside the 600 passengers already booked as of September 2013 [sources: Chang; Virgin Galactic].
Governments and Space Agencies
Few countries eyeing the space sector possess the deep pockets or political will to fund a national space program, so their governments leverage what they can: the ability to provide monetary incentives, the clout to gather key actors around the negotiating table and the savvy to combine brainpower and resources to good effect.
The European Space Agency, for example, leverages intellectual capital and research facilities from across Europe and encourages prominent, specialized companies and research groups to establish space clusters -- collaborations on space-related R&D projects.
NASA, too, helps bootstrap private enterprises through its Centennial Challenges and collaborations with commercial space companies, and by offering some of its idle launch pads for private rental [source: Boyle]. Its Commercial Crew Initiative incentivizes space enterprises to build cheap space taxi services for astronauts and cargo. In 2008, the space agency entered into billion-dollar contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station: eight flights from Orbital (valued at about $1.9 billion) and 12 flights from SpaceX (valued at about $1.6 billion) [source: NASA].
So far, so good: As of September 2013, Orbital was performing its demonstration run to prove to NASA that its tech and expertise were good enough to pull off touchy orbital maneuvers and autonomously dock with the ISS. SpaceX had already completed two such missions by that time [source: Achenbach].
But relying on government capital raises a difficult question: Will the funding continue? Against such uncertainty, sometimes the only response is to take things one (fierce) step at a time, like our next company.
Have you ever heard the phrase gradatim ferociter? Very roughly, it translates to "step-by-step, fiercely."
That's the motto of Blue Origin, developer of the New Shepard vertical-takeoff-and-landing spacecraft: step by step, fiercely -- and secretly. The company, established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, operates mostly behind closed doors, opening them (briefly) to test its nine-engined rocket pod prototype. The suborbital astronaut transport was inspired by the old DC-X craft developed by McDonnell Douglas for NASA and the Defense Department.
Quiet as the company might be, its whispers made NASA sit up and take notice. The space agency ponied up $22 million in second-round Commercial Crew Development funding for the strut-legged craft, atop the $3.7 million in first-round funding it awarded Blue Origin earlier to support development of a Launch Escape System (LES) and a composite crew module pressure vessel for structural testing.
Blue Origin has support where it counts: namely, Congress. That leverage proved useful when the company lodged a September 2013 protest with the Government Accountability Office concerning NASA's bidding process for launch pad 39A. The company voiced concerns that a single company might monopolize the pad, granting it an unfair competitive advantage [source: Boyle].
Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Launch Alliance
In any space race, old or new, it would be a mistake to discount experienced hands like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Lockheed Martin -- which has built every aeroshell flown by NASA to Mars, from Viking to the Curiosity rover to the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft -- was responsible for two spacecraft inserted into lunar orbit in January 2012, and is developing the Orion crew capsule for NASA's Space Launch System [sources: Lockheed Martin; Lockheed Martin].
In October 2011, Boeing signed a 15-year lease to use a space shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center to build and oversee its Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft. NASA funded the ship via its Commercial Crew Development program to the tune of $110 million. Also on Boeing's to-do list: the core stage for NASA's Space Launch System, which the company will begin testing in January 2014 [sources: Matthews; Roop].
Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, continues to build Atlas V rockets, the platform on which several commercial ventures plan to launch their space planes or crew capsules. The mainstay rocket all but guarantees United Launch Alliance a future place at the table -- that, and ULA's 75 successful launches since its formation in 2006 (40 of which involved Atlas V vehicles) [source: United Launch Alliance].
The question is, will such strong ties to the old guard -- and the old school -- help carry the companies to the stars or strap them to a sinking ship? And can NASA keep the cash taps open over the long haul?
Sierra Nevada Space Systems
Take the Dream Chaser, Sierra Nevada's planned commercial crew vehicle, which will ferry up to seven astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station. The company hopes the reusable mini-shuttle, which will launch via rocket and land like an airplane, will stake out a sizable plot of the space tourism and commerce real estate. As of September 2013, the Dream Chaser test article -- akin to the Enterprise vehicle used to test space shuttle flight performance -- had completed both tow tests and captive-carry flight tests, with a free-flight test planned for the near future [source: Sierra Nevada].
To negotiate the jump from small satellites to crewed spacecraft, Sierra Nevada assembled an industry dream team, with partners from Draper Laboratory; NASA's Langley Research Center; Boeing; and United Launch Alliance [source: Chang].
Sierra Nevada must be doing something right: In 2010, the company netted $20 million out of an available $50 million in NASA funding for preliminary development. In 2011, NASA added another $80 million in second-round funding. Moreover, its hybrid rocket engines, which powered SpaceShipOne on its successful Ansari X Prize bid, also propelled SpaceShipTwo on its two successful supersonic test flights in 2013 [source: Norris].
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX)
On Dec. 8, 2010, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, launched the first privately owned ship ever to return safely from Earth orbit. The Dragon capsule, propelled to space atop a two-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, had made history, but its famous founder,Elon Musk, didn't rest on his laurels: Not long after, he made the surprising claim that, within three years, his company would send astronauts to space at $20 million a pop.
Once viewed as a dark horse, SpaceX moved to the head of the pack in the years following Dragon's historical orbit. In fulfilling its $1.6 billion contract with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), the company set another record, becoming the first private space enterprise to send an uncrewed spacecraft to the ISS [sources: Kramer; MSNBC].
But its successful resupply runs to and from the ISS only mark the beginning of the company's ambitions. Ultimately, the aim is to turn the Dragon cargo container into a seven-seat manned minivan, and SpaceX has begun that transition process.
In September 2013, SpaceX became embroiled in a legal wrangle with Blue Origin and the U.S. Government Accountability Office over whether private-sector bids on NASA's launch pad 39A would be winner-take-all, or would support a multi-user model. The outcome could have serious ramifications for companies seeking to dominate the available infrastructure [source: Boyle].
Orbital Sciences Corp.
Open the space catalog of Virginia-based Orbital Science Corp. and you'll find small- and medium-class rockets, along with launch services covering orbiting satellites, deep space probes and payload deliveries to high altitudes. Its clientele encompasses the commercial, military and civil government sectors, including NASA, with whom it secured a $1.9-billion contract to fly eight cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
The company originally planned to send its first rocket delivery van to the ISS late in 2012, but that date has slipped to the end of 2013. As of Sept. 23, 2013, its Antares rocket had successfully launched its cargo vehicle, Cygnus, into space for its first demonstration mission, but was waved off due to a software problem. Once fixed, the craft was slated to dock with the ISS and remain there until October 2013 [sources: Achenbach; Kramer; MSNBC; NASA].
Like others embarked on the rough road to space, the company has suffered its share of setbacks: In June 2011, an engine caught fire during a ground test and, that April, NASA's Commercial Crew Development program bypassed funding its Prometheus space plane, after which the company backed away from the project [source: Kramer and Chang].
Still, as the contenders in the new space race round the first turn, Orbital remains strong in the pack. By developing a launch abort system for NASA's Orion crew capsule, it maintains a stake in the space agency's future endeavors, while also hedging its bets across public and private space sectors.
Orbital, a survivor of fickle space budgets since 1982, knows how to stack the odds in its favor. It's a lesson worth learning for any challenger who wants to survive and thrive in the new space age.
A new kind of survival story: Scientists discovered a star that came near a black hole and lived to tell the tale – at least temporarily.
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