LONG BEACH, Calif. — Entrepreneurial companies are determined to reshape the commercial space industry in the years ahead with ventures designed to reduce the cost of access to space. The wide scope of projects includes the development of vehicles for suborbital tourism, eventually leading to orbital vehicles that could provide transportation to and from lower cost habitats and laboratories in space and even take advantage of one of the planned orbiting fuel depots.
But bullish predictions such as these must be tempered by the realities of a gauntlet of policy, technology, finance and regulatory issues facing all of the entrepreneurs trying to provide public access across the space frontier.
Representatives from several leading private space groups addressed their assessment of those challenges and their approach to solving them during a Sept. 19 panel discussion at the Space: The Next 50 Years conference organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Boeing.
Jason Andrews, president of Andrews Space, in Seattle predicted that vehicles capable of horizontal takeoff and airplane-like operations not only will reduce launch costs, but also stimulate new business in low Earth orbit and ultimately out to the Moon.
“I think we’re going to see a sea change in space transportation from the Earth’s surface to low Earth orbit,” Andrews said, coupled with universal infrastructure like common interfaces and docking systems. Policy issues such as resource utilization, even land ownership on the Moon, he added, will need sorting out in the years to come.
Some of the early projects are well underway. Scaled Composites LLC of Mojave, Calif., for example is busy building SpaceShipTwo, a passenger-carrying suborbital vehicle, for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline. Burt Rutan, Scaled’s president and chief executive officer said that he found himself in the unusual position with SpaceShipTwo of having a program “that’s announced, but not unveiled.”
Rutan said the company’s long-range plan is to build perhaps as many as 40 or 50 spaceships in the future for a variety of customers. Scaled Composites already has increased its staff and floor space by a factor of about two-and-a-half in the last couple of years. “All that growth is not in commercial space … about 45 percent of it is,” Rutan said.
“What we are developing is something that we expect to be competitive 20 to 30 years from now,” Rutan said.
Rutan said the problem with space as a business is the lack of payloads.
For now, flying people in space is the only payload that makes any business sense, Rutan said. Doing so, he said, will foster needed breakthroughs in safety and lower operating costs.
Jeff Greason, president and chief executive officer for XCOR Aerospace in Mojave said that predicting routine suborbital passenger spaceflight “is like predicting when the egg is going to drop when it’s already on the way to the floor.” Not only is it going to happen, Greason stressed, there also will be multiple players vying for a market larger than what was expected just a few years ago.
That translates into faster price drops than first anticipated, “because that’s what competition does,” Greason said.
Debra FacktorLepore, president of AirLaunch LLC, headquartered in Kirkland, Washington, likened the current crop of space entrepreneurial firms as the “Wild West,” forecasting that today’s private space companies will become more mainstream – eventually replaced by another set of entrepreneurs with those “really wacky ideas.”
One big roadblock to the wider use of affordable small launchers and payloads, Lepore said, is the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which make it difficult and in some cases impossible for U.S. companies to do space business abroad. ITAR, she said, stifles the creation of international partnerships. As a result, she predicted, some nations will march ahead of the United States in technology, putting U.S. technological competitiveness at risk.
Lepore also stressed that it is important for small businesses and entrepreneurs to maintain their commercial and intellectual property rights – even if they receive full or partial government funding of their projects. “That’s your real asset, and protecting that is paramount,” Lepore said.
Lawrence Williams, vice president for international and government affairs for Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif., said innovation and low prices can be realized if the U.S. government facilitates true and open competition. That will permit “hard-charging, aggressive entrepreneurs” to change the space industry – but only if the U.S. government removes financial economic inefficiencies, such as the enormous subsidies for the companies who participate in the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
Rutan cautioned that the “little guys” should avoid government funding. “I think it’s the worst place to get money. You’ve got hundreds of people who are on your board of directors and each one has their own agenda,” he said, and it’s a relationship that leads to not taking risks and realizing breakthroughs, he concluded.