Commercial Space Flight: How Close Are We?

Written by Abhishek Shankar

Space companies have begun to research different types of engines and means of propulsion. Cost-saving efforts, such as reusable rockets, are also in development. In response, many individuals involved in spaceflight ventures express hope that Mars projects will be completed in the near future.

Now more than ever, news about commercial spaceflight makes headlines and front pages. The number of private organizations involved in spaceflight increases from year to year. Every billionaire with an interest in space exploration and interplanetary travel seems to have a stake in the industry. A natural question therefore arises: when did all of this begin, and how successful is spaceflight today?

Between 1963 and 1982, expendable launch vehicles (ELVs)—rockets designed to be launched only once and expended—were deployed primarily under NASA contracts. Starting in 1979, the European Space Agency also began to contract launches of its own ELV, Ariane. By 1984, government agencies were not the only organizations conducting ELV operations. Even Ariane was taken over by Arianespace, a private company. Around the same time, private launches in the U.S. started to take place, with Space Services Inc. successfully test-launching its prototype Conestoga rocket.

By 1996, Lockheed Martin and Boeing joined in the development of ELVs, building Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) for the EELV program of the United States Air Force. As private organizations became more involved, Congressional deregulation followed. First, Congress passed the Launch Services Purchase Act, then the Commercial Space Act, and finally the SPACE Act of 2015, which allows U.S. citizens to engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of all “space resources,” excluding biological life. Around 2010, President Obama proposed that NASA exit the ‘business’ of flying astronauts from Earth. He suggested a move to private companies (e.g. Lockheed Martin) that could more easily provide cargo resupply for the International Space Station.

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Graphic by Jackie Yang

As of today, there exists a multitude of spaceflight companies. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences Corporation, Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace, The Spaceship Company, and Sierra Nevada Corporation are only a few of the private organizations currently working on rockets. These companies focus on a few objectives. In-orbit propellant depots are a priority as well as asteroid mining and energy extracting. Additionally, the concept of a space elevator—essentially a long cable stretching from earth’s surface to outer space—is being explored. These efforts are paving the way for larger ambitions such as spaceflight to Mars and commercial flights to the moon.

Although private space travel organizations are progressing rapidly, there are a number of significant issues these organizations currently face. First, these efforts prove to be expensive—each spaceflight can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, NASA’s Space Launch System could cost up to $500 million per launch. Additionally, current methods of propulsion are inadequate; excessive amounts of fuel and energy are required for propelling large spacecrafts. Furthermore, space debris poses a threat, and the effects of zero-gravity and radiation on the human body need to be addressed.

Despite such challenges, solutions are being explored. NASA has conducted experiments to observe the effects of zero-gravity on humans. Space companies have begun to research different types of engines and means of propulsion. Cost-saving efforts, such as reusable rockets, are also in development. In response, many individuals involved in spaceflight ventures express hope that Mars projects will be completed in the near future. Richard Branson suggests that space travel may be possible in another 20 years, while Elon Musk states that “If things go super-well, it might be in the 10-year time frame.”

Even if Mars exploration does not happen in the next 10 to 20 years, the technological improvements associated with space travel—cost saving measures, better propulsion technology, reusable rockets—may be adopted for intercontinental travel. For instance, Elon Musk recently unveiled an idea for city-to-city rockets. Given all the efforts and resources poured into commercial spaceflight, it is very likely that college students today will have at least one outer-space experience within their lifetimes.

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