The private space industry has long been viewed as fledgling. But this once-pejorative term has taken on new meaning this year, as a roster of successes and fast-paced growth throughout 2010 suggests private spaceflight is ready to take off in 2011.
This year saw the very first launch of commercial space company SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster, and later the first liftoff of the firm's Dragon spacecraft, which launched atop a Falcon 9 to Earth orbit and then was recovered from the Pacific Ocean. Another company, Virgin Galactic, achieved some major milestones, including the first glide test of its suborbital spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo. [Gallery: First Solo Flight of SpaceShipTwo]
Multiple private-sector space firms are moving into full power, going well beyond powerpoints and hand-waving. Still, the coming year, according to experts and analysts contacted by SPACE.com, is likely to feature battles between "same old space" and the ascension of "new space."
"The space industry has never seen such a rich and varied commercial landscape," said Carissa Bryce Christensen, managing partner of consulting firm The Tauri Group in Alexandria, Va. "New markets are emerging and established ones are changing."
Christensen said that entrepreneurs are testing new launch and on-orbit capabilities in the real world, trying to move beyond development and demonstration and into sustainable, profitable operation. Large firms are changing their game plans in response.
"The successes and setbacks of 2011 are going to make it the most interesting year in the history of commercial space," Christensen predicted.
Commercial space is finally coming into its own, and 2011 represents a year of enormous potential for this developing industry, said David Livingston, founder and host of the radio/Internet talk show "The Space Show."
"The key will be to systematically move forward, building success upon success," Livingston said. "I believe the coming year will reward patience, achievable goals, business fundamentals, reasonable business risks and a safety mindset."
In terms of trends for the space industry, Livingston foresees a move away from big government programs in favor of economically managed and leaner commercial space ventures and projects.
"I believe this trend will continue through 2011 and beyond. That said, I do not think our space program should be one or the other, government or private," Livingston said."I believe we can now, more than ever, effectively create public/private partnerships to guide us into space and our future."
Squarely in the spotlight
The scheduled retirement of NASA's three-orbiter space shuttle fleet next year will also likely affect the landscape.
"I think the environment for 2011, although much improved from the religious war in 2010, will still see continued debate about the future direction of NASA with shuttle retirement," said Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group that includes commercial spaceflight developers, operators, spaceports, suppliers and service providers.
Alexander said he thinks commercial space will be "squarely in the spotlight" with an expected ramp-up of both suborbital flight testing and multiple orbital launches and re-entries under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partnership agreements with U.S. industry.
NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable and cost-effective space transportation capabilities.
"So, with steady progress on the technical front, it should help to solidify NASA's new direction to develop commercial capabilities," Alexander said.
"2010 was the year that war broke out between commercial and cost-plus space," observed Jim Muncy, president and founder of PoliSpace, an independent space policy consultancy based in Alexandria, Va.
"A rational White House, which nobody can accuse of having an ideological bias in favor of commercial business and privatization, decided that the nation couldn't do much, let alone everything, the 'traditional' way," Muncy said. "To actually use the International Space Station and explore space, the private sector needed to play a greater role in both."
Muncy said that as nasty and counterintuitive as the long debate of 2010 was, next year — especially in the context of the new Congress, which has vowed to cut government spending — will see "the rubber hit the road" in several fronts of this war.
For 2011, Muncy forecasts:
- At least two companies that operate suborbital reusable launch vehicles will fly science payloads for NASA, and piloted vehicles will have their first flight tests.
- A SpaceX Dragon will carry a mammal to low Earth orbit and possibly to the International Space Station.
- The effort to build a commercial crew spacecraft will move forward, while overall budget pressure on NASA will slow down Florida Senator Bill Nelson's grand compromise (which, among other things, gave money to commercial companies and NASA to develop and build new rockets).
- The Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act's "informed consent" regime for Federal Aviation Administration regulation of commercial human spaceflight will clash with some politicians' desire to kill commercial crew efforts.
- The fight over human-rating of commercial crew will get heated, as will a scrap for control over this rating between NASA's Johnson Space Center and the agency's Kennedy Space Center.
"Not a prediction but a hope," Muncy said, is that "Republicans will remember they like the private sector and stop mindlessly bashing commercial."
Rand Simberg, a space policy and technology consultant and a former aerospace engineer, isn't optimistic that Republicans will get fully behind commercial space.
"Despite the growing confidence in the ability of the commercial sector to do human spaceflight, the incoming Republicans may continue to wage war on the new NASA direction, in opposition to their usual stated principles of free enterprise and competition, for no reason other than it came from a weakened Obama White House," Simberg said.
Overall, next year "may be the year that business-as-usual collides with budgetary reality," he predicted.
Simberg said that "even the most pork-devoted politicians will have to recognize that the only way for NASA to have a viable human spaceflight program going forward is to rely on fixed-price launch contracts from new, more cost-effective providers for the now-mundane task of simply getting astronauts to orbit and back."
On the suborbital front, Simberg said that 2011 may be the year that regular flights of fully reusable vehicles — both horizontal- and vertical-landing — will take off.
That being the case, Simberg added, such suborbital flights "will start to develop the experience in high-tempo launch operations that will inform the eventual development of cost-effective space transport all the way to orbit."
Availability and schedule
Likely to be a nexus of private sector space action is Spaceport America, now under construction near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic will run commercial operations from Spaceport America, with billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson recently setting his sights beyond suborbital passenger takeoffs.
"Virgin Galactic has shown in the past few years how private sector investment and innovation can lead to a rapid transformation of stagnant technologies," Branson said. "We are now very close to making the dream of suborbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past.
"We know that many of those same people, including myself, would also love to take an orbital space trip in the future," Branson added, "so we are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely whilst driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars."
Earlier this month, Branson revealed that Virgin Galactic will be supporting work done by Sierra Nevada Space Systems (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) on commercial space vehicles for NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program.
Both SNC and OSC are pursuing vehicle designs featuring reusable lifting-wing bodies and runway landings, which Virgin Galactic sees as possibly revolutionizing orbital space flight.
Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said that the pace of activity continues to pick up throughout the industry — and Spaceport America is no exception.
"In 2011, we expect to be in the midst of our pre-operations phase — hiring contractors, developing policies and procedures and conducting all kinds of tests and drills to ensure we are ready to go operational in 2012," Homans said.
Homans said that from the inquiries they have received, he anticipates Spaceport America's vertical launch area should be very busy in 2011. Other companies such as UP Aerospace, Armadillo and other operators have already inquired about availability and schedule, he added.
"I see 2011 as the year to get ready for 2012, when I predict we will have our first commercial launches from Spaceport America," Homans said.
- Gallery: Photos of the Dragon Space Capsule, Dragon Video
- Top 10 Private Spaceships Becoming Reality
- Photos: SpaceShipTwo's First Solo Test Flight, Video of the Flight
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.