Private Spaceflight Industry at Big Turning Point, Advocates Say

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The burgeoning field of commercial spaceflight is at a major turning point, industry proponents say.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that 2012 has really been an inflection point,” former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria said Oct. 17 here at the eighth annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

Lopez-Alegria, who serves as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said there is “a sea change going on” both in terms of achievements within the industry and the perception of this industry to the outside world. He highlighted major milestones from the past year, including the first launch of a private spacecraft to the international space station and the continued development work on private spacecraft by Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin and others.

Likewise, in the realm of suborbital spaceflight a handful of companies — notably Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Masten Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace — continue to test their vehicles in preparation for offering space tourist flights in the coming years.

“I can’t help thinking we’re in the midst of something big,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said of the growing commercial space industry. “These are incredibly exciting times and I am so, so pleased and proud that NASA can play a small role.”

NASA has sponsored competitions for commercial vehicles to carry both cargo and crew to the international space station, which currently relies on Russian spacecraft for transportation in the wake of the space shuttle’s retirement. SpaceX’s Oct. 7 cargo launch was the first of 12 scheduled delivery missions for the firm under a $1.6 billon NASA contract awarded in 2008. NASA’s other cargo provider, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., plans to begin cargo flights as soon as March.

NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs have not been instituted without resistance by some in Congress, who question the safety and reliability of commercial spacecraft, and have pushed for less funding for private spaceflight.

“Amid the mistrust and subpoenas, it’s hard to remember sometimes how much progress we’ve made,” Garver said.

Many commercial space companies still face an uphill climb, both in developing complex technology and in growing a market beyond NASA for their services.

“This industry loves hard stuff,” Roger Krone, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, said Oct. 18. “We just thrive on challenge. If we wanted to do something easy or simple we wouldn’t be in this business. We all want to be part of something that’s new and exciting.”