History Beckons Commercial Space Industry

The nine engines of Falcon 9 ignite in the early morning darkness at Cape Canaveral on May 22, starting the Dragon spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

There are relatively few moments in history when virtually the entire public is in agreement that an event is “historic” at the time the event actually happens. Most great events that are ultimately deemed to be historic by historians, tradition, and public consensus are seen as being history-making moments only in hindsight, frequently after the passing of many years or even many decades. We recently were lucky enough to observe an event in space history that was widely deemed historic from the moment it occurred: the successful launch on May 22 of the Dragon capsule by private firm Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX), its docking with the International Space Station (ISS) on May 25, and its safe return to Earth and recovery on May 31. The achievement was compounded by the fact that the capsule was carried onboard SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket.

Like no other event in the recent history of space exploration, the success of the Dragon spacecraft captured the public’s attention and, in today’s information-driven world, just as importantly caught the attention of the world’s news media. Aviation Week & Space Technology summarized the importance of the event in its one-word cover headline: “TRAILBLAZER.” Former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who currently serves as the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, described the flight of Dragon as “the spark that will ignite a flourishing commercial spaceflight marketplace.”

The robotic arm of the International Space Station grapples the Dragon capsule into docking position on May 25. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The Aerospace Corporation has a long history of involvement in the field of commercial space, and the company has also been caught up in the excitement over the flight of the Dragon spacecraft. Aerospace played an important role in Dragon’s return by obtaining and analyzing airborne video observations of the capsule’s return as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. 

In his June 7, 2012, blog Willie Krenz, vice president, Enterprise Information Services, remarked that, “The media hype this generated has been astounding, given how little interest the public has had in the ISS. It appears to have rekindled interest in space, and especially among college students. This event is significant not so much for what happened but rather how it happened. While the ISS has been docked many times before, having a 10-year-old start-up private company do it is pretty remarkable.”

A few days later, in her June 7 CEO’s Report to Employees, Dr. Wanda Austin noted that Aerospace provided data acquisition support to SpaceX for the Falcon-9 Dragon mission to the ISS, as well as imaging services of Dragon’s reentryto NASA. She applauded SpaceX for bringing back a sense of excitement to space missions, and pointed out that as the commercial market is successful, there will be a spillover effect that will benefit the government market as well.

Gary Pulliam, vice president, Civil and Commercial Operations (CCO), describes the potential of commercial space as “unlimited.” Pulliam believes that in years to come, “commercial space companies, both for the launch vehicle and the spacecraft, will provide much of what we now procure through classic government acquisition programs.” An interview with Pulliam, in which he discusses his perspective on commercial space and the role that The Aerospace Corporation will play in the field, can be found here. “Aerospace and CCO have dedicated ourselves to maintain insight into the emerging commercial space industry,” said Pulliam, “and we look forward to providing value-added services to all our customers in this area.”

Randy Kendall, special assistant to Pulliam, who will succeed him as vice president of CCO on Oct.1, sees Aerospace’s longtime experience in so many facets of the space industry as an extremely positive factor in future commercial space work: “With increasing overlap between defense and commercial space technology, Aerospace’s broad involvement across the entire space industry uniquely positions us to support the commercial space industry. We do this in areas that serve the public interest and have synergistic benefits to our national security space customers as well.”

Aerojet successfully completed a hot-fire test of its AJ26 engine on May 3 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The engine, modified from the legendary Soviet NK-33, will power Orbital’s Antares launch vehicle. Photo courtesy of Aerojet.

Of course, SpaceX is not operating in a vacuum; there are a number of companies devoted to working in the field of commercial space, and a few are nipping at the heels of SpaceX in terms of progress. Here are summaries of the current status of some of SpaceX’s competitors in the commercial space arena:

Orbital Sciences Corporation: The company that is probably closest to actual launch capability after SpaceX is Orbital Sciences, which currently has a $1.9-billion contract with NASA to provide eight cargo flights to the ISS after it proves the success of its launch vehicles. Orbital has already manufactured working models of its Cygnus spaceship and Antares rocket, which will ultimately be launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. A launch test for Cygnus is planned for fall 2012, with a possible test flight to the ISS in November or December. Cygnus will deliver supplies to the ISS, but unlike Dragon, it will burn up during reentry.

Boeing Company: Boeing has built a space capsule, dubbed the CST-100, with commercial crew funding received from NASA and recently completed a successful parachute drop test of the capsule in Nevada. Current plans call for the CST-100 to carry both astronauts and cargo; test launches are planned for the 2015-2016 timeframe.

Blue Origin: This company was created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also serves as the president of Blue Origin. While Bezos has been highly secretive about Blue Origin’s work, it is known that the company intends to concentrate on delivering space tourists to suborbital levels and has received $22 million from NASA to further the development of its crew and cargo vehicle, known as New Shepard. Headquartered in Kent, Wash., Blue Origin maintains a small launch facility in Culbertson County, Texas, near the town of Van Horn.

Alliant Techsystems: The ATK Aerospace Systems division of Alliant Techsystems has developed the Liberty rocket and passenger spacecraft system without contract funding from NASA. Much of the system’s testing has already taken place, with a key structural test of the rocket’s second stage scheduled for later this year. The first unmanned test flight is projected to take place in 2014, followed by a crewed flight in 2015. ATK believes that flights to the ISS, carrying both astronauts and cargo, could take place as early as 2016.

Sierra Nevada Corporation: Sierra Nevada, based in Sparks, Nev., is developing a small, shuttle-type crew vehicle called Dream Chaser. Its first flight is tentatively scheduled for 2016 or possibly 2017. The company has constructed a full-scale ship for flight testing, which will be achieved by dropping the craft from a helicopter this fall. Sierra Nevada has received approximately $105 million in NASA funding.

Virgin Galactic: Long a key and early important player in the suborbital space tourism industry, Virgin Galactic announced this month that it is developing an unmanned small-satellite launcher. The two-stage rocket will be known as LauncherOne and will lift satellites weighing between 100 and 225 kgs into low-Earth orbit. Virgin Galactic is utilizing an investment of $280 million that it received in 2009, specifically to expand into the satellite launch business, to develop LauncherOne.


—Steven Strom