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Commercial Space of the 21st Century


Although the term “commercial space” was perhaps seldom used during the beginning of the space program, it came into existence as soon as NASA was formed in 1957.  Anything considered a “NASA contract” comprised a private enterprise performing the duties of providing units or subassemblies of hardware or other needed services.  Until the concept arose for a private firm to send an unmanned satellite into space did the term “commercial space flight” start to become more heard of, and the U.S. Communications Satellite Act of 1962 opened the way to a new league of venturism.  However, the satellites of this era were all launched using government launch vehicles. 

The history of a fully-privatized space transport system became noted by the German company OTRAG (Orbital Transport and Rockets, Inc.) which was the first known commercial developer and producer of space launch vehicles.  In the 1970s and 80s, OTRAG was led by the German aerospace engineer Lutz Kayser, who proposed they could derive an alternative launch system much less expensive than Europe’s Ariane and USA’s space shuttle, costing one tenth of a conventional system.  OTRAG set up operations in Zaire in 1977, but drew political differences from France and the Soviet Union, causing it to move to the desert of Libya in 1980.  Kayser’s innovation was to make use of common-rocket-propulsion-units (CRPU) by way of mass production without the reusability of spent stages, which also allowed labor to be reduced.  In mid-2006 Armadillo Aerospace reported the acknowledgment of OTRAG’s design, but said reusable stages will eventually take over.

By the 21st century numerous modern projects of suborbital and orbital systems developed, and in 2006 NASA announced a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) to coordinate the delivery of crew and cargo to the International Space Station by private companies.  NASA could send payloads to the ISS for less than the Space Shuttle. 

By the year 2012, it was acclaimed “the year of private space”, due in part to the success of SpaceX who conducted two launches to the International Space Station, and highlighted by the experienced engineer teams of startup companies Planetary Resources and Golden Spike.  Planetary Resources intends to develop and employ technologies for asteroid mining, while Golden Spike plans to provide complete commercial human lunar excursions to countries, corporations, and individuals.

At about this time, commercial space is said to have chimed-to-a-different-tone.

Space Adventures organized the flights of the first private space explorers including Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth.  It offers availability today for space flight missions to the International Space Station, around the Moon, zero-gravity flights, and reservations on future suborbital spacecraft.  It formed in 1998 located in Vienna, VA, founded by Eric C. Andersen and  Peter Diamandis. 

A world-class systems integrator and electronic systems provider, Sierra Nevada Corporation is known for its innovative technology solutions.  It is the top-woman-owned-federal-contractor in the United States, headquartered in Sparks, Nevada and
whose specialties include Renewable Energy, Telemedicine, Nanotechnology, Microsatellites and Human Space Flight.

Reflecting a motto “we return”, Moon Express is a lunar transportation and data services company destined to send a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon for ongoing commercial exploration and development, deemed to benefit Earth.  It has recently unveiled its “MX-1” lunar lander spacecraft capable of delivering scientific and commercial payloads at a fraction of a cost than otherwise thought possible.  The robot lander contends to operate on hydrogen peroxide, a water enriched oxygen compound; and because water has been discovered on the moon, Moon Express claims the MX-1 has a potential source of rocket fuel on the lunar surface.

Spaceport America is the world’s first purpose-built commercial space port, and was officially declared open on October 18, 2011 in New Mexico.  Its tenants include Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.  It was initially a concept started by Stanford University lecturer Dr. Burton Lee in 1990.  With 18,000 acres, a 12,000 foot spaceway, and a nearby vertical launch area, it was completed in 2012 at a total project cost of $209 million. 

A premier manufacturer of high performance space suits, Orbital Outfitters also provides full scale vehicle mockups, one of which is the XCOR Lynx.  It calls itself a NewSpace company, a term used to describe a community of relatively new aerospace companies working toward developing low-cost access to space.

Paragon is a provider of environmental controls for extreme and hazardous environments.  They design and test premier life support systems for astronauts, water divers, and other extreme environment adventurers.

Based at Mojave Spaceport in Mojave, California, XCOR Aerospace develops and produces reusable launch vehicles (RLVs).  One of its projects is the Lynx rocketplane, designed for one pilot and one ticketed passenger, it travels to suborbital flights of 100 km (or 62 miles), the edge of space known as the Karman line.

ARES Corporation professes a top-notch team of engineers and scientists focusing to solve the industry’s most complex technical challenges in the areas of space, defense, and nuclear energy.  It is one of the foremost engineering and project management companies in the United States, providing support to commercial space industry in regards to safety and mission assurance, primarily due to its relation with NASA and their safety approval process. 

David Clark Company has pioneered the design, development, and manufacture of air and space crew protective equipment since 1941.  With products ranging from anti-G suits to space suits, the company’s tradition of providing leading edge equipment for manned aerospace programs continues into the future.

Griffin Communications Group, once a subsidiary of Griffin Foods featuring a popular line of pancake and waffle syrups, is now an award-winning team of communication specialists led by aerospace veterans Gwen Griffin, President & CEO, and Jeff Carr, VP Aerospace Communications.

Flying scientific payloads to above 99.9% of the Earth’s atmosphere at altitudes of 30-40km, Near Space Corporation uses stratospheric balloon platforms for testing and maturing space related technologies.

Located in Madison, Wisconsin is ORBITEC, a subsystems integrator offering commercially mature solutions in five areas including Propulsion, Space Resources, and Energy Systems; Human Support Systems and Instrumentation; and Emergency Response Systems.  ORBITEC is short for Orbital  Technologies Corporation and is a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corporation. 

Also located at the Mojave Spaceport is Scaled Composites, founded by Burt Rutan in 1982.  It specializes in composite structural design, analysis and fabrication, and developmental flight tests of air and space vehicles.

Waypoint 2 Space operates from the hub of space technology, NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.  It has assembled a team of experts comprised of former NASA and military personnel to help develop the most comprehensive instructional space training programs available.  They are safety focused commercial spaceflight training programs designed to meet (or exceed) the needs of emerging suborbital and orbital spaceflight service providers.

These are only a sample from the complete roster of businesses and organizations holding membership with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the association working to make human spaceflight a reality.  The federation’s interests are to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever higher levels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout the industry.

As promising as commercial space flight hopes to be, it isn’t without some rough edges.  On October 28th of this year, an unmanned Orbital Science Antares rocket blew apart on the launch pad, dousing its project payload (5,000 lbs of supplies to the International Space Station) and destroying the Cygnus spacecraft, a loss of 200 million dollars.  Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke apart in mid-air losing one of its test pilots.  “Space is hard and today was a tough day,” was the statement coming from Virgin Galactic:

“The future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the team, that has been working so hard on this endeavour, to understand this and to move forward.  And that is what we’ll do.”