- Private companies have started to take the lead in humankind’s march into space.
- Companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Virgin Galactic are shaping the future of spaceflight with exciting new innovations.
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Most who grew up during the days of the space race were promised a future with moon colonies, orbital space stations, and routine travel to the stars. But that future has always been elusive, since it has long depended upon shifting Congressional priorities and timid funding — currently, NASA’s budget is about $21 billion, or 0.49% of the federal budget.
In recent years, however, private industry has started to take the lead in humankind’s march into space.
Unfortunately, some innovative companies have recently crashed back to earth. Two different startups hoping to become pioneers in the asteroid mining industry — Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries — recently pivoted away from their ambitious space mining plans.
But for every failure, there are a handful of innovators still moving forward, from SpaceX, which recently unveiled its latest prototype of Starship, a rocket system design to populate Mars, to Axiom and its plans to deploy a commercial space station.
Here are the 11 most exciting innovations shaping the future of spaceflight today.
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SpaceX has made reusable rockets not just practical, but routine.
In the 11 years since SpaceX’s first successful orbital flight, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk has made its mission to pioneer the creation of rocket boosters that can land vertically, like the cover picture of a 1950s-era sci-fi novel, then be reused for another flight.
SpaceX has successfully landed 44 boosters out of 52 attempts after using them to launch payloads toward space. More than half of the recovered boosters have flown more than once with relatively little refurbishment. The company has made reusability routine, setting the stage for inexpensive spaceflight and routine missions to orbit, the moon, and possibly even Mars.
Virgin Galactic is preparing to fly passengers to space for 20 minutes of weightlessness more than 50 miles high.
In 2004, an air-launched rocket-powered aircraft called SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for successfully carrying a three-person crew to space and back again twice in a two week period.
It was an achievement that may have kicked off the age of space tourism in a reusable spacecraft. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson soon formed Virgin Galactic and started development of SpaceShipTwo, a larger vehicle that could routinely take six passengers and two pilots to the edge of space to experience zero gravity for “several” minutes before landing on a runway.
Though Virgin Galactic hasn’t met its original timetable, the company’s current prototype spacecraft, VSS Unity, has flown above 50 miles twice, qualifying as a spaceflight by American standards, though the FAA defines the border with space at the Kármán line, which is 62 miles high.
Virgin Galactic has completed its spaceport near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is proceeding with construction of two more SpaceShipTwos. While routine commercial operations aren’t imminent, earlier this year Richard Branson said, “Next year I’ll be going up.”
Boeing has spent a decade developing the CST-100 Starliner, the next generation crew capsule that may take civilian tourists to the space station.
At first glance, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner looks like a throwback to the days of the Gemini and Apollo missions. It’s a crew transport developed for NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and it looks like a modernized Apollo capsule.
But the Starliner is much more. Designed to accommodate crews of up to seven people and able to spend nearly seven months in orbit, it’s also intended to be reused up to 10 times. NASA commissioned the Starliner as a part of its Commercial Crew Development program in 2009 as a replacement for the now retired space shuttle. It’s not the only spacecraft in development for space station taxi duty — SpaceX is developing the Dragon 2 capsule, which is neck and neck with Starliner for a first crewed flight, likely in early 2020.
But that’s not the most exciting news for space tourism advocates. Space Adventures has shown interest in flying the Starliner to the ISS, and Boeing is exploring other partnerships for tourism as well.
John Mulholland, the Boeing Starliner program manager, says there’s been “a lot of interest from both paying passengers but also other companies and other nations that are either part of the space station community and want additional access or are building their own destinations.”
SpaceX is building the most powerful rocket in history.
On September 28, Elon Musk unveiled the latest prototype of Starship. The final vehicle is designed to be two stages: a spaceship of the same name that sits atop a Super Heavy booster. When the full system flies into orbit for the first time — possibly within the next two years — it’s expected to be the largest and most powerful rocket ever flown.
The Saturn V, which sent humans to the moon nine times, could put 130 tons in low earth orbit. Starship, in comparison, should be able to hoist 150 tons to orbit — while preserving enough fuel to return both stages to earth to be reused for additional flights.
The Super Heavy will be powered by an array of no fewer than 24 Raptor engines burning liquid methane with liquid oxygen. Critics have compared Super Heavy to the ill-fated Soviet N1 moon rocket, which never got more than 25 miles off the ground because Soviet rocket engineers couldn’t tame the ungainly cluster of 30 engines. But SpaceX has demonstrated expertise with reliably firing engine clusters — the Falcon Heavy, which has now flown twice, is comprised of 27 Merlin-1D engines.
Axiom is planning to launch a private space station to replace the ISS.
The fate of the International Space Station may be uncertain. It’s scheduled to be decommissioned in just five years, after which it may be handed off to commercial operators or simply deorbited, to crash into the Pacific. But there’s already a company ready to step in to fill the void. Axiom Space was founded in 2016 to develop a commercial space station to facilitate both industry and space tourism.
Axiom isn’t the first company to propose building its own space station, but it has heavy hitters from NASA on its payroll, including a ISS program manager, and is trying to move fast. Axiom has announced plans to routinely offer 10-day visits to the ISS. The company also said it intends to start launching its own modules to the ISS starting sometime after 2020.
Eventually, Axiom hopes to launch its own power and propulsion modules and re-link its ISS modules into its own stand-alone space station. The company expects to be able to do all this for about $1.8 billion. In comparison, the ISS cost NASA roughly $150 billion.
Orion Span hopes to let people spend their honeymoon in low earth orbit on a luxury space station.
Unlike Axiom, which has its sights set on a large orbital platform that can pick up where the ISS left off, Orion Span has a much narrower focus. It’s planning the Aurora Space Station, a modestly sized station with a complement of six people — two crew and four visitors. Orion hopes to woo wealthy space tourists who can spend about $9.5 million for a 12-day stay.
The station will be about 12 feet wide and 35 feet long, with private sleeping pods, luxury décor, and plenty of viewing areas. The real innovation here is that Aurora thinks it can do this on a veritable shoestring budget. Instead of hundreds of millions of dollars, Orion Span CEO Frank Bunger told the Berkley Haas School of Business that the initial single-module station could be built for a tiny fraction of that: $65 million.
Unfortunately, the future of Aurora is uncertain. The company was looking to raise $2 million through a crowdfunding campaign, but appears to have raised just 10% of that goal.
Bigelow is planning to build an inflatable space station — and it’s already deployed an inflatable modules on the ISS.
Bigelow Aerospace is planning to orbit its own space station, which is remarkable enough. But it’s how the company plans to build this station that makes it revolutionary.
Founded in 1999, Bigelow is one of the more established aerospace companies working in low earth orbit. The company has long evangelized inflatable modules. Built of a soft, expandable material, they’re lightweight and pack into a relatively small space for launch, but can be pressurized and expanded once in orbit. Designed with a Kevlar-like material, they’re as strong and robust as traditional space station technologies. In fact, Bigelow acquired the technology for expandable modules from NASA, which had originally considered using it for sections of the ISS.
Bigelow has been flying an inflatable module onto the ISS for more than two years, and is now developing a private space station for industrial applications and space tourism. Currently, the company is promoting its inflatable B330, which it says is an autonomous station that can be orbited in a single launch, rather than assembled in orbit after multiple launches. It can accommodate four people with two galleys, two toilets, large cargo space and two propulsion systems.
The Gateway Foundation wants to build an enormous rotating space station like the one in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’
There’s a lot of interest in private space stations, but none more ambitious than the Von Braun Station. An enormous Ferris wheel in space, Von Braun would measure 1,600 feet (about a third of a mile) in diameter, have almost 12 million cubic meters of pressurized volume, and spin in order to provide simulated gravity for the occupants. As a point of comparison, the ISS has 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume — hundreds of times less, and about the same as a Boeing 747.
The station is the goal of the Gateway Foundation. Like the now-defunct Mars One organization that wanted to put colonists on Mars through some sort of reality TV programming, it seems like the Gateway Foundation might have impractical expectations.
But the Foundation has engineering drawings and plans to build the station using two dozen Bigelow B330 inflatable modules, along with a membership program that includes space advocacy and a pathway to working in orbit on the space station.
The Aerospace Corporation has proposed the equivalent of shipping containers for launching small satellites.
When the now-ubiquitous shipping container was introduced in the 1960s, it radically transformed the workflow of loading and unloading cargo ships and consequently revolutionized the global economy. Similarly, the Aerospace Corporation has proposed a standard “launch unit” for small satellites that could remake the launch industry.
It’s hard to overstate the complexity of a space launch manifest today. Payload owners need to work closely with launch providers to find room aboard a scheduled launch and “rideshare” on the rocket. If something goes wrong — for example, the primary payload gets scrubbed or the ridesharing smallsat suffers its own delay that forces it to move to another launch date — the complex process has to start all over again.
In a statement, Aerospace Corporation said, “Developing a standard Launch Unit, or Launch-U, for mid-sized smallsats — approximately the size between a toaster and a small refrigerator — will enable rideshares to be configured more quickly and efficiently, resulting in more launch opportunities at a lower cost.”
Moon Express is on target to send a lunar lander to the moon in 2020.
From 2007 to 2018, Google sponsored an X Prize that would have awarded $30 million to the first team that could land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send high definition video of the excursion back to Earth. At the time, a number of teams completed for the prize, but none were able to launch before the competition was terminated.
But a few teams soldiered on, even without the potential of winning a prize. Moon Express is one of the few remaining competitors still in the race, and plans to launch in July 2020. The company is building a lander, dubbed the MX-1E, which will land on the moon’s south polar region to look for the presence of water in support of future manned missions and lunar settlements.
With any luck, it won’t suffer a similar fate as the private Israeli moon lander, Beresheet, which crashed into the lunar surface because of a software glitch.
SpaceX may use Starship to rocket passengers anywhere on Earth in about a half hour.
This may be SpaceX’s third appearance in this list, but it’s well deserved. In addition to flying resupply missions to ISS, planning a private Apollo 8-style mission around the moon, and moving full speed ahead on a plan to populate Mars, the company has announced plans to use its massive Starship system to fly suborbital missions to routinely ferry passengers around the world in about half an hour.
Both rocket scientists and sci-fi novelists have talked about the potential for getting between any two points on earth in less than an hour. After all, that’s the idea behind nuclear-tipped ICBMs. But in 2017, Elon Musk unveiled a plan to actually do it. Sometime in the 2020s, you might be able to board in New York and disembark in Paris 30 minutes later, or go from London to Hong Kong in 34 minutes.
The best part is that you’d get to see the curvature of Earth from space and experience a ride like Disney’s Space Mountain in the process, says Musk.