Commercial Spaceflight Reborn

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.

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