Space travel has long been the preserve of governments and sci-fi fans, but in recent years a crop of new commercial ventures, often backed by billionaire entrepreneurs, has sought to get into the race.
The list of so-called thrillonaires has only grown, along with their ambitions: Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who set up Blue Origin to lower the cost of space technology; Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX with the aim of going to Mars one day; and Richard Branson, who started the space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
But two recent accidents involving commercial rockets have underscored the high risks and soaring costs involved in any spaceflight.
Recently, a Virgin Galactic space plane exploded during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and injuring another. Days earlier, an Orbital Sciences rocket carrying a supply vessel to the International Space Station blew up seconds after it was launched.
Both accidents are under investigation. Although they were unrelated, their occurrence just days apart was a stark reminder that the path to space is just as arduous for private companies as it is for government-funded programmes.
“The engineering and physics of space tend to be unforgiving, no matter who is doing this,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former assistant administrator at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The common thread between these new space initiatives is that they all are looking for ways to sharply cut the cost of spaceflight. Without that, analysts say, there is no realistic prospect of making spaceflights both routine and affordable in the future.
“What you are seeing playing out are different experiments, by different groups, trying different approaches,” Pace says. “To me, this does not call into question the basic logic of relying more on the private sector.”
The push to privatise spaceflight is in part borne of necessity. After pioneering space exploration and landing on the moon with programmes like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, Nasa has had to adapt to tighter budgets and redefine its mission. Today, one of its main goals is to encourage and fund the development of commercial space entities.
Lori B Garver, a former deputy administrator at Nasa and one of the most prominent advocates for commercial space during her tenure, says public funds should be focused on activities that advance technology and provide public benefits to all, like planetary science.
At the same time, she says, the government should encourage private companies to move ahead and find innovative ways of reducing costs.
“In my view, the private sector has the same incentive, or even more, to get things right as the government does,” Garver says. “If we only trusted risky things to the government, we would only fly in government-owned and operated airplanes.” Many of the current commercial operations have some form of government support.
Orbital Sciences is operating under a $1.9-billion contract from Nasa to deliver cargo to the space station. Its Antares rocket exploded on the third of eight resupply missions.
The same is true of SpaceX, which was recently awarded $2.4 billion by Nasa to build a transportation system for astronauts within the next three years. SpaceX was also the recipient of an earlier $1.4-billion contract to deliver cargo to the space station. Boeing also won a Nasa contract for $4.6 billion to build a spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the space station.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have sought to reduce costs in different ways. Orbital’s rockets use a pair of refurbished engines built in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. The engines were intended for Soviet rockets destined for the moon, but were never used and lay in storage for decades. The engines were refurbished by an American company and incorporated into the Antares rocket by Orbital.
SpaceX, by contrast, builds its engines for its Falcon 9 rocket and aims to reduce costs, in the long term, by reusing the rocket. The company has succeeded in firing a test rocket called Grasshopper, having it hover at around 2,400 ft and then returning it to its point of launch.
But its efforts to land Falcon 9 rockets have so far been unsuccessful, though the company says it is getting closer. In August, a bigger test rocket trying a high-altitude test was destroyed shortly after takeoff. No one was injured.
Nasa is “looking for cheaper access to space”, says Marco A Caceres, a space analyst at the Teal Group, a consulting firm in Virginia. The trouble, he says, is that reliability and price are often tied together. “It may be unreasonable to expect to pay under a certain amount to get a reliable vehicle,” Caceres says. “That comes at a cost.”
Virgin Galactic is an exception to the model of government-funded launchers. The company has been working on an experimental vessel to take paying passengers to the edge of space and back.
The craft, called SpaceShipTwo, was designed to be launched from a plane, then rocket up to its apogee at about 62 miles, an altitude considered the boundary of outer space. At the top of its ascent, two tail booms would rotate upward into a so-called feathered position intended to create more drag and stability, and allow the plane to descend gently back into the atmosphere.
Federal accident investigators say the plane had shifted early into this high-drag configuration shortly before its accident for reasons that are still unclear. The investigators say it was far too soon to draw any conclusions about the crash.
Investigators have located almost all of the important pieces of the space plane, which had fallen along a debris field five miles long. That included the fuel tanks and the engine, which were “intact, showed no signs of burn through, no signs of being breached”, says Christopher A Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“There is much more we don’t know, and our investigation is far from over,” Hart said during a news conference at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
In a statement, Virgin Galactic responded to criticism that the design of SpaceShipTwo was flawed and that the test flights were reckless.
“At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our ‘North Star’,” the company says. “This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue.”
Caceres says the new space entrepreneurs were good at creating excitement about their ventures. Before the accident, about 700 people had reserved seats on Virgin Galactic, with tickets costing $250,000 each.
“You are talking about a brand-new era of space,” Caceres says. “You have personalities like Richard Branson and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are not engineers. These are different kinds of people and they can generate a lot of excitement and capital investors who are willing to give you a lot of money.”
However, he adds, “the downside is that if you have problems, you have all this attention focused on you.”