A Decade into a New Spaceflight Era, a Mixture of Frustration and Optimism

by

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Ten years after the completion of the Ansari X Prize appeared to open a new era of commercial human spaceflight, company executives and government officials at a commercial space conference expressed a mixture of optimism about the future of the industry and impatience at the perceived lack of progress over the last decade.

“I’m actually quite frustrated with the pace of commercial space,” said Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy for Blue Origin, the privately funded spaceflight company led by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

“It really has been frustrating to be 10 years into commercial space, 10 years from the X Prize, and not see a proliferation of activity, of people flying regularly,” he said in a presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here Oct. 15.

Alexander was referring to the flights of SpaceShipOne on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4, 2004, that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for vehicle developer Scaled Composites and the project’s financial backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. At the time, those flights appeared to signal the beginning of a major expansion of commercial space activities, including suborbital space tourism.

The company most closely linked to that vision of commercial spaceflight has been Virgin Galactic, which announced its plans to partner with Scaled Composites on what would become SpaceShipTwo shortly before those X Prize flights. At the time of the original announcement, Virgin Galactic proposed starting commercial service as soon as late 2007. Those flights are still at least several months in the future.

In an Oct. 15 ISPCS speech, Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides said the company had just completed ground qualification tests of a new hybrid rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo. “We expect to get back into powered test flight quite soon,” he said.

As is customary for the company, Whitesides did not give a schedule for when commercial SpaceShipTwo flights would begin, although the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, said in September that he expected to be on the first commercial flight in February or March of 2015. “I, personally, am incredibly excited about the next six months,” Whitesides said.

The ISPCS, marking its 10th year, is itself an outgrowth of the X Prize. The conference started in 2005 as the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight, a one-day event held on the New Mexico State University campus here just before the X Prize Cup, a space-themed airshow held at the local airport. While the X Prize Foundation ended the X Prize Cup after the 2007 event, the conference has continued, diversifying into other aspects of commercial spaceflight.

That diversification has included a greater presence by U.S. government officials in their roles of both regulating and incentivizing commercial space efforts. At this year’s conference, they argued that the growing capabilities of the commercial space industry are becoming increasingly critical to civil and military space efforts, and overall national space power.

“I see a collision coming between commercial space and defense space needs,” Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said in an Oct. 15 speech here. That intersection of needs and requirements, he said, could mitigate reductions in government spending by allowing agencies to make greater use of commercial capabilities. “This is the way the U.S. will stay ahead of others in space,” he said.

One way the Defense Department is supporting that intersection is through the Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Three companies — Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman — received phase one contracts this year to begin initial design work on a reusable lower stage that could be used to place satellites weighing up to 2,250 kilograms into orbit for less than $5 million per launch.

“We are trying to build a capability that is useful to the military, but do it on the backs of commercial space,” Jess Sponable, DARPA XS-1 program manager, said Oct. 16. “If you can do that, we have a sustainable solution. If we can’t, then we’re just another space program.”

In an Oct. 16 speech here, George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, outlined a dozen “mission areas” where industry is playing, or plans to play, a major role, from launching satellites to space tourism to space-based resource extraction. That, he said, is a major change from 10 to 20 years ago, when commercial space activities were largely limited to the construction, launch and operation of communications satellites.

“I find the depth and breadth of the things being worked on right now in the commercial sector to be really exciting, and they frankly give me hope for the nation’s future in space,” he said.

Much of that hope is pinned to the future of the international space station, including both commercial transportation to and from the ISS and commercial research performed there. That near-term work on the ISS may be critical in developing demand for future commercial space stations, said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“The question is, can we use the space station as a government entity to show others that there is a market out there that is independent of the government and is worth their investment?” he asked.

Some of those partnerships have moved faster than even Alexander expected. “Who would have thought 10 years ago that we’d be talking about NASA funding two commercial crew providers, flying their own astronauts on privately owned and operated vehicles?” he said. “I thought then it would take a lot longer than that.”

“This progression that we’ve had over the last decade from fully government activities to hybrid government-commercial activities to now some fully commercial activities has been exciting to watch,” Alexander said, “but the pace of it has been a little bit frustrating.”