Private Spaceflight Industry Aims to Shake Off a Rough Year

Second SpaceShipTwo Under Construction
Virgin Galactic's second SpaceShipTwo under construction in Mojave, California.
(Image: © Virgin Galactic)

It's been a tough year for private spaceflight, but the leaders of the burgeoning industry are determined to bounce back.

Over the past 12 months, robotic resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) launched by both Orbital ATK and SpaceX failed, and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight, killing the vehicle's co-pilot and seriously wounding its pilot.

These accidents have slowed the progress of commercial spaceflight, but the industry is far from grounded. Orbital ATK and SpaceX plan to be flying again before the year is out, for example, and Virgin Galactic is nearly finished building SpaceShipTwo number two. [Antares Rocket Explosion in Pictures]

"We're still pushing the frontier here — and it's hard, but it's worth it," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told Space.com. "That struggle is something that will ultimately help humanity leap forward and bring big benefits to humanity."

A rough 12 months

Orbital ATK holds a $1.9 billion deal with NASA to fly eight uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS using the company's Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.

The first two of these resupply flights went well. But the third one, which launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Oct. 28, 2014, ended just seconds after liftoff, when the Antares rocket fell back to Earth in a huge fireball. An investigation traced the likely cause of the failure to a problem with the turbopump in one of the rocket's two first-stage AJ26 engines.

Just three days later, on Oct. 31, 2014, SpaceShipTwo took to the skies for its fourth rocket-powered test flight. But the trial ended in tragedy; the space plane broke apart in midair, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later determined that Alsbury unlocked SpaceShipTwo's "feathering" re-entry system too early during the flight, leading to the crash. The NTSB also found that Scaled Composites, the aerospace company that built the vehicle for Virgin Galactic, "set the stage" for the tragic accident by failing to protect against the potentially catastrophic consequences of human error.

Like Orbital ATK, SpaceX flies robotic missions to the ISS for NASA; SpaceX's deal is worth $1.6 billion, for at least 12 flights using the company's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. SpaceX had succeeded on the first six of these missions, but the Falcon 9 exploded less than 3 minutes after launching on flight number seven, on June 28, 2015. [See video of the Falcon 9 explosion]

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said the mishap was caused by a faulty steel strut inside the rocket's upper stage.

The three failures serve to show that spaceflight remains a difficult endeavor, industry representatives have said.

"I think we're all sympathetic to each other when these types of things happen," former astronaut Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Group, told Space.com earlier this month during the 2015 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

"We had a lot of offers — not just of sympathy and condolences, but offers of support and help after the Antares incident," Culbertson added. "We see that across the industry all the time. Aerospace is a pretty tight community."

Returning to flight

Orbital is revamping the Antares rocket, swapping out the AJ26 for Russian-made RD-181 engines. (The AJ26 is Russian at heart as well; it's a modernized and refurbished version of the NK-33 engine, which the Soviet Union built for its giant N1 moon rocket during the height of the space race.)

But Orbital won't wait until Antares is updated to start flying cargo to the ISS again. The company aims to launch its next Cygnus atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 3, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The following Cygnus flight, currently scheduled for March 2016, will also use an Atlas V. Then, if all goes according to plan, the new Antares will loft a Cygnus for the first time in May or thereabouts.

The Falcon 9 should also return to flight before the year is out. Indeed, SpaceX aims to conduct two different commercial-satellite launches with the rocket in December 2015, though no firm dates have been set. The first flight will loft 11 satellites for the company Orbcomm, while the second will launch the SES-9 spacecraft for SES. The next Dragon launch to the ISS should follow shortly thereafter, in early January, SpaceX representatives have said.

Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, is working on a longer timetable; the next SpaceShipTwo is still under construction.

"We're getting close," Whitesides said. "Most of the structure has been done, and we're really working through final systems installations now."

He declined to speculate about exactly when SpaceShipTwo might take to the skies again.

"We're very strongly motivated to execute and to get through our development programs, our build programs, and into test flight," Whitesides said. "We've got great teams set up now for both of those efforts, and I think we're going to do great stuff in the coming year."

Most Virgin Galactic customers — future space tourists — have stuck with the company in the wake of last year's test-flight tragedy, he added.

"We really didn't have too many folks leave our customer community," Whitesides said. "We still have a great number here — nearly 700 folks who are eager to go experience space, and we're very grateful to them."

Space tourism ready to take off?

When it's up and running, SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers per flight up to suborbital space, where they will be able to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space, and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Tickets to ride the spaceliner currently cost $250,000 a pop.

Virgin Galactic is the highest-profile company in the new field of space tourism, but it's not the only one. XCOR Aerospace, for example, is selling rides on its one-passenger Lynx rocket plane for $100,000 (though the price will go up to $150,000 on Jan. 1, 2016).

Furthermore, Blue Origin, which was established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is developing its own suborbital passenger vehicle called New Shepard, and the company World View Enterprises is selling balloon rides to the stratosphere for $75,000 per seat.

It's too soon to tell if there are enough well-to-do adventure tourists out there to support all of these companies, said space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at The George Washington University.

"When these organizations — one or more of them — start flying, that's when we find out whether their market projections are realistic," Logsdon told Space.com.

Just when that will be is unclear, especially since previous projections have tended to be too optimistic. (In 2004, for example, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson predicted the company would be flying customers by 2007.) For what it's worth, XCOR representatives have said Lynx test flights could begin late this year, and World View aims to begin commercial operations in 2017.

Space.com writer Calla Cofield contributed to this story. Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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