The dawn of private spaceflight

The first fifty years of human spaceflight have been totally dominated by governmental organisations. America, Russia, Europe and China have all used tax revenue to finance the difficult engineering task of sending a human into space and returning him safely. The difficulties involved mean that it is also very expensive – but any man or woman with sufficient cash should be able to organise getting a human off Earth. So who will do it first? And who will do it coolest?

SpaceX are a company based in Los Angeles that is focused on developing affordable access to space. The founder and CEO of SpaceX is Elon Musk, the man who was the real-life inspiration for Iron Man’s Tony Stark. Having become a billionaire after founding PayPal and Tesla Motors, Musk realised that the only way that space could become accessible to the average person was if the cost was lowered tenfold or greater. With reusability in mind, he designed the Dragon capsule and the Falcon family of rockets. The Dragon spacecraft has actually flown, attaining Earth orbit in December 2010 (below are some photographs of the maiden flight). Though it was unmanned, it could have held up to seven passengers, who according to Musk “would’ve had a very nice flight.” Dragon’s next flight is scheduled for April 2012, where it will rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

Our second private company, Virgin Galactic, focusses on space tourism. It operates the SpaceShipTwo sub-orbital spaceplane (see image below), which is currently undergoing extensive atmospheric testing. SpaceShipTwo is the brainchild of aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. After launching mid-air from a carrier aircraft, it will transport 8 people (six passengers and two pilots) more than 100km high, where they will be able to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. Passengers will experience 5 minutes of weightlessness as they trace a parabolic arc before plunging safely back to Earth. The first paying astronauts should be flying in 2013.

Artist’s impression of SpaceShipTwo being carried by the mother aircraft

Unconcerned by the act of getting into space, hotelier Robert Bigelow instead decided to build the destination. Over the next decade, he plans to build what he calls the Bigelow Aerospace Commercial Space Station (below) from inflatable modules. Though that might sound dangerous, the modules are reinforced with multiple layers of advanced Kevlar-like material, which are supposedly safer than traditional rigid metal shells. Inflating in orbit will allow Bigelow’s space station to have a similar living volume as the ISS for a fraction of the launch weight. It is intended to serve as the first ever ‘space hotel’, to be leased to tourists, or to smaller countries that are unable to finance their own space programme. Two prototypes are in currently orbit and holding up well.

Artist’s impression of Bigelow Commercial Space Station

Like SpaceShipTwo, Dream Chaser (below) is also a spaceplane, albeit one that is capable of attaining orbit. Originally a Nasa design, it was saved from the archives by computer scientist Jim Benson. It is designed to be launched atop a traditional rocket, and carry 7 people to the ISS. Unlike the Dragon capsule, Dream Chaser would then return to earth by landing on a runway, allowing for greater flexibility and safety. Other than that, the main notability in this craft is how cool it looks – like it fell right out of a futuristic sci-fi.

Artist’s impression of Dreamchaser docking with the ISS

Continuing the theme of slick sci-fi spacecraft, our last specimen, the Skylon (below), surely tops them all. Developed in Britain by engineer Alan Bond, the Skylon is an enormous 83m long plane with revolutionary engines that are part jet, part rocket. It would take-off from a runway, reach orbit in one stage, release a sizeable payload, and return to a runway to be reused in full. And that payload could be converted to carry an incredible 24 people. It is hugely ambitious, but if it worked, it would do to traditional rockets what DVD did to VHS. That is, if they ever get past the design stage…

Artist’s impression of Skylon attaining orbit

These examples are but a few of the companies currently working on getting people into space. I selected these because they are the ones, I feel, are the most realistic and/or the most interesting ideas. More companies can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_private_spaceflight_companies

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