Commercial Space Industry Cautiously Optimistic Despite Setbacks

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A series of setbacks for the entrepreneurial space industry in the last year, including several high-profile accidents, has left many in the field chastened but still optimistic about a future that has taken longer to develop than originally thought.

“I think we are moving from a period of euphoria to a period of real, measurable but tough progress,” George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in an Oct. 8 presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here.

Whitesides noted that several companies suffered launch failures since the previous ISPCS a year ago, including the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on a test flight last October. “I think all of us remain undeterred in our mission to open up space,” he said.

Another company that suffered a launch failure offered a similar sentiment.

“We gave ourselves a little bit of time — a couple of hours — to lick our wounds,” Frank DeMauro, a vice president in Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group, said Oct. 8, referring to last year’s Antares launch failure. “But the following day, the company embarked on figuring out how we were going to return to flight.”

“While our industry has suffered some technical setbacks, there are no shutdowns for us,” Pat Hynes, chairwoman of the conference, said in opening remarks Oct. 7, referring to a potential federal government shutdown narrowly averted a week earlier. “These companies are still working, they’re still moving forward, and we will be better off in the future.”

The companies and even industries at the conference have changed, though, since ISPCS started in 2005 as the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight. The conference originally tied itself to the X Prize Cup, an air and space exhibition at the city’s airport. The cup’s organizers, the X Prize Foundation, planned to turn the event into a full-fledged competition among suborbital vehicles, building on the success of the $10 million Ansari X Prize won the year before by SpaceShipOne.

Those plans failed to come to fruition, though, and the X Prize Cup was discontinued after 2007. Despite the success of the original prize, most of the other teams that participated in the competition stopped development of their own suborbital vehicles, depriving the event of its planned roster of competitors.

“Sadly, out of 24 teams, only three or four survived,” Dumitru Popescu, president of ARCA Space Corp., said in an Oct. 8 conference talk. ARCA was one of those teams, at the time a nonprofit organization based in Romania. It incorporated in the United States in 2014, still with plans to develop suborbital vehicles, although Popescu said its near-term focus is on developing unmanned aerial vehicles.

In recent years, ISPCS has been more closely linked to Spaceport America, the commercial spaceport built by the state of New Mexico north of Las Cruces. However, activity there has been limited because of delays by Virgin Galactic, its anchor tenant. SpaceX, another customer of the spaceport, also postponed plans to perform reusable launch vehicle tests there after its June launch failure.

Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said in an Oct. 8 interview that she has worked to diversify the spaceport’s revenues. That includes attracting new businesses like satellite ground stations to the site and encouraging alternative uses, such as filmmaking, while waiting for launch companies to ramp up activities there.

“You have to be resourceful and resilient,” she said of the spaceport’s efforts to bring in new business. Even with the progress she reported, though, Anderson said it would likely be no earlier than late 2017 before the spaceport was financially self-sustaining.

At last year’s ISPCS, Sierra Nevada Corp. was in the middle of a protest of commercial crew contracts NASA awarded to Boeing and SpaceX. While the company eventually lost that protest, it remains hopeful about the future of its Dream Chaser vehicle while awaiting the outcome of a NASA competition for commercial cargo transportation to the space station.

Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada Space Systems, said at the conference Oct. 7 he was confident work on Dream Chaser will continue even if the company loses the NASA cargo competition. “We as an industry and we, certainly, as a company have been predicted to die every year in the 11 years that I have been doing this,” he said. “And, so far, I’m still standing up here on this stage.”