Commercial Spaceflight Reborn

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Last week, President Obama threw the space community into a tail spin when he announced changes to the space program. Americans have been fixated on big, headline-grabbing missions like lunar landings and voyages to Mars for nearly half a century, but now the Obama administration is recalibrating the space program in a subtle but potentially exciting way... especially if you happen to be an aerospace entrepreneur.

Obama is devoting $6 billion to develop the technology that would indeed take us to Mars, but much of that money will also be routed to the commercial space industry. Under this plan, federal money will not just go to NASA but to private aerospace businesses with the intention that we will now rely more heaviliy on these companies for crucial projects like transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. At the same time, this announcement will likely generate attention for some of the other innovative space projects coming from the private sector.

For many Americans, the idea of commercial space flight may just sound like science fiction. However, we’ve actually had a small but growing commercial space industry in this country for decades. As Popular Mechanics points out, private companies have been running delivery missions with “multi-hundred-million-dollar satellites for a couple of decades now.” And one organization called the Space Access Society has been holding meetings every year for about as long on how to cut the cost of space exploration. Yet, the ultimate goal of putting regular folks into space without the help of NASA remained completely allusive, at least until 2004.

That year, Mike Melvilla, a pilot, became the first person to fly a private spaceship out of the atmosphere shortly before “control problems” with the ship cut the trip short. The ship was appropriately named SpaceShipOne and was the product of nearly ten years of work by Scaled Composites, a private aerospace company (not to mention more than $20 million of funding from Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen.)

Now, just six years later, there is a long line of companies looking to replicate this feat. Perhaps the most famous project currently in the works is Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a spaceship marketed by Virgin and its billionaire founder, Richard Branson, but that was actually designed and manufactured by Scaled Composites. SpaceShipTwo made its first test flight last month and Virgin Galactic’s goal is to become the first company to provide “daily space tourism flights.” In fact, they are already allowing customers to book seats on future flights for the incredible sum of $200,000.

Virgin Galactic may be the most well known, but they still have plenty of competition (all of whom have some sweet company names.) There’s the Rocket Racing League, Starchaser Industries, Microgravity Enterprises, Excalibur-Almaz and Orbital Outfitters, to name some. And while few may have spokesmen who are as charismatic and wealthy as Branson, the commercial space race has lured other celebrated businessmen, like Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.

"It's obviously an exciting time. You have some of the most successful businessmen around willing to bring not just their own vision, but to put their own money on the table," said John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry trade group. Gedmark sees two big benefits from these new commercial companies: they will all be competing with one another, thereby "driving down costs and driving up quality," and perhaps even more importantly, they will boost public awareness to the overall space program.

"If you ask the average American to name someone who is on the space station right now, I doubt that one in a thousand would know the answer," Gedmark said. "That's not because NASA isn't doing worthwhile work up there, but rather because it is not a marketing entity." He argues that you can already see a change in this thanks to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, the wealthy CEO of SpaceX.

SpaceX is one of the most promising aerospace companies right now, producing commercial rockets and spaceships. The company is considered a frontrunner in the field and Obama actually visited their headquarters after giving his momentous speech to NASA last week. According to NPR, SpaceX has already been contracted by NASA to build “a launcher and a reusable spacecraft designed to help resupply the [International Space Station] starting next year.” This is part of NASA’s larger mission to create a new space taxi program that will ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

In the past, the idea of space taxis has been pitched as a way to cut the cost of space travel, and even to make it easier for civilians to one day venture into space. But the space taxi program is about more than just developing traditional spaceships. USA Today reports that private companies are needed to help “develop new technologies for orbital fueling stations, inflatable space habitats and spacecraft that rendezvous and dock without pilots.”

If this all sounds too out there to grasp, consider one of the most important and tangible impacts: job growth. One consulting firm recently estimated that NASA’s commercial space projects could result in nearly 12,000 jobs each year over the next five years.

Wired Magazine speculates that these new positions could range from “space travel ticket brokers” to “space construction and repair specialists.” (And yes, some of these private companies will be looking to hire astronauts too).  Best of all, if current space careers are any indication, most of these jobs will pay around six figures. The average salary for employees in the space industry was $90,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

Still, it will likely be several years before regular folks can afford to blast off. According to Gedmark, there are companies who are prepared to offer trips to space for as little as $100,000, but it will likely take "five to ten years" before prices go down enough for average people to go up into space. For the time being, Americans can begin fantasizing of the day when they take a family vacation to the stars.

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