SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic: Who’s who in private space travel?

NASA’s budgets have shrunk since the late 1960s, so which companies are stepping up to fill the gap?

Advertisement

In the West, NASA is synonymous with space travel. That’s understandable: the space agency not only put a man on the moon in 1969, but also launched the Hubble Telescope, pioneered the reusable space shuttle, sent probes to Uranus and Neptune, and hugely increased our knowledge of asteroids, and Pluto thanks to New Horizons. The plan is still for NASA to put humans on Mars within a generation, but the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel thinks that’s a long shot thanks to a lack of innovative technology and a funding gap.

The second issue is a problem that isn’t getting better any time soon. On paper, it may look as though NASA’s budget has grown year-on-year, but if you adjust the figures for inflation and plot the budget as a percentage of US GDP, things become more clear. The budget has been shrinking in real terms ever since the Apollo missions, when beating the Russians was a sufficiently large incentive for Congress to bankroll NASA to a degree we’re unlikely to see again soon.

When NASA retired its space-shuttle fleet seven years ago, the door was open for the private sector to pick up the slack with rocket and space-station construction. This side-steps an awful lot of red tape, although it raises vaguely troubling questions about profitability over the sum total of human knowledge. Nonetheless, a number of private enterprises have stepped up to the plate. Here are some of the key players.

SpaceX

Established all the way back in 2002 by Elon Musk – fresh off the back of selling PayPal to eBay – SpaceX was founded to reduce the cost of space travel and push us ever closer to colonising Mars, a goal that Musk is extremely passionate about.

The best way to reduce the cost of space travel? Reusable rockets - namely its Falcon 9, and its Falcon Heavy.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for the reliable and safe transport of satellites and the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Falcon 9 is the first orbital class rocket capable of reflight. SpaceX believes rocket reusability is the key breakthrough needed to reduce the cost of access to space and enable people to live on other planets.

SpaceX said the Falcon 9 "was designed from the ground up for maximum reliability." It has two stages and the first stage features nine engines meaning it can safely complete its mission even in the event of an engine shutdown.

Since 2006, SpaceX has had a contract from NASA to resupply cargo to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 made history in 2012 when it delivered the Dragon capsule into the correct orbit for the ISS, making SpaceX the first commercial company ever to visit the station. Since then Falcon 9 has made moe than a dozen trips to space, delivering satellites to orbit as well as delivering and returning cargo from the space station for NASA. The full manifest, including future missions is here.

Musk's Falcon Heavy launched for the first time on 6 February, bringing one of his own sports cars into orbit with it. Falcon Heavy provides twice the thrust of the next largest rocket currently flying, according to Musk. He added that Falcon Heavy has around 2/3 of the thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket.

It was announced in September that SpaceX will launch its first tourist mission in 2023, and already has a passenger lined up: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. SpaceX has cited this upcoming mission as "an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of travelling to space."

Blue Origin

Then there’s Blue Origin, which was founded back in 2000 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In an interview 11 years later, Bezos explained the company’s mission in two sentences: “If you really want to make it so that anybody can go into space, you have to increase the safety and decrease the cost. That’s Blue Origin’s mission.”

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin sees reusing rockets as the most efficient way to do this, which often sees the two companies being mentioned in the same breath. In 2016, the company successfully managed to land a rocket safely back on Earth for the second time in a row, which sounds suspiciously similar to SpaceX’s achievements. However, as Wait But Why succinctly put it, that’s where the similarities end:

“You have SpaceX trying to land a rocket that’s going much higher and much, much faster than Blue Origin’s, but with far less fuel to use for descent. This isn’t to take anything away from Blue Origin’s awesome accomplishment, but it shouldn’t even be talked about in the same conversation with SpaceX’s attempts at landing a rocket.”

That could change with time, of course, but on top of that, Blue Origin’s focus is – on the surface at least – more commercial than anything else. The company orignally aimed for commercial space flights by 2018, but it looks as though this goal is being pushed back.

But as Bezos told Florida Today last year, this too is a means to an end, advancing technology through commercial interest. Likening the early commercial space flights to the first years of the aeroplane, he explained: “The entertainment mission became a very important mission that led to lots of flights and lots of airplanes being manufactured. And that led to better airplanes. And then you get air mail and so on and so on.”

Virgin Galactic

You can’t mention space tourism without considering Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Founded back in 2004, it’s now seven years since Virgin Galactic’s maiden commercial flight was supposed to go ahead, but that date has already been pushed back a number of times – and we’re still waiting. Some more patiently than others: it was reported back in 2014 that, after repeated delays, 3% of customers had not unreasonably demanded refunds of their $200,000 deposits, still leaving the company with 680 paid-up customers.

They may also have pulled out due to safety concerns, with a high-profile crash that killed a pilot in 2014 leaving future plans very much in doubt. As Tom Bower, author of Branson: Behind the Mask, said: “They spent 10 years trying to perfect one engine and failed. They are now trying to use a different engine and get into space in six months. It's just not feasible.”

In test flights to date, the company has only managed altitudes of 71,000ft – more than twice your standard commercial flight, but still less than a third of the 320,000ft aimed for.

Branson's not aiming for Mars, and wants, instead, to conquer commercial space travel. Last year, he said he was planning on being in space by early 2018. Clearly, that didn't happen, but that has not discouraged the company. In a recent interview with CNBC, Branson claimed that Virgin Galactic will be in space within the next few weeks. No specific date was given for this supposed event.

"We will be in space with myself in months and not years,” he said. “We will be in space with people not too long after that."

Orbital ATK

Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos...it may sound like private space travel is the sole preserve of prominent rich entrepreneurs, but Orbital ATK has no such easily identifiable figure, and is the lowest profile here despite being the oldest by some margin: it’s the merger of two companies founded in 1982 (Orbital Sciences Corporation) and 1990 (parts of Alliant Techsystems).

TechRadar describes them as “the closest thing we’ve got to a privatised version of NASA”, and the company certainly has plenty of successes to back that up – not least of all the $1.9 billion contract it has with NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station, with its Cygnus rocket able to deliver 2,000kg of pressurised cargo.

Despite its heritage though, even Orbital ATK isn’t immune from accidents. NASA saw this firsthand in October 2014 when the company’s third cargo mission ended in the Antares rocket exploding upon launch.

That was the third resupply mission to fail that year, joining another from SpaceX and the Russian vehicle Progress M-59. With something as difficult as space travel, accidents happen, whether it’s private companies or NASA itself.

“Space is hard,” as the old expression goes – just as well there’s plenty of competition, ensuring our best minds have extra incentive to crack it once and for all.

READ NEXT: What animals have made the trip to space?

Images: 0x0077BE, and a composite of Daly3d, OnInnovation and Steve Jurvetson used under Creative Commons

Read more about: