Entrepreneurs Envision a Sea Change in Commercial Space

Entrepreneurial companiesare determined to reshape the commercial space industry in the years ahead withventures designed to reduce the cost of access to space. The wide scope ofprojects includes the development of vehicles for suborbital tourism, eventuallyleading to orbital vehicles that could provide transportation to and from lowercost habitats and laboratories in space and even take advantage of one of theplanned orbiting fuel depots.

But bullish predictions suchas these must be tempered by the realities of a gauntlet of policy, technology,finance and regulatory issues facing all of the entrepreneurs trying to providepublic access across the space frontier.

Representatives fromseveral leading private space groups addressed their assessment of thosechallenges and their approach to solving them during a Sept. 19 paneldiscussion at a conference entitled, "Space: The Next 50 Years,"organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Boeing.

JasonAndrews, president of Andrews Space, in Seattle, predicted that vehiclescapable of horizontal takeoff and airplane-like operations not only will reducelaunch costs, but also stimulate new business in low Earth orbit and ultimatelyout to the Moon.

"I think we?re goingto see a sea change in space transportation from the Earth?s surface to lowEarth orbit," Andrews said, coupled with universal infrastructure like commoninterfaces and docking systems. Policy issues such as resource utilization,even land ownership on the Moon, he added, will need sorting out in the yearsto come.

Some of the earlyprojects are well underway. Scaled Composites LLC of Mojave, Calif., forexample is busy building SpaceShipTwo, a passenger-carrying suborbital vehicle,for Sir Richard Branson?s Virgin Galactic spaceline. Burt Rutan, Scaled?spresident and chief executive officer said that he found himself in the unusualposition with SpaceShipTwo of having a program "that?s announced, but notunveiled."

Rutan said the company?slong-range plan is to build perhaps as many as 40 or 50 spaceships in thefuture for a variety of customers. Scaled Composites already has increased itsstaff and floor space by a factor of about two-and-a-half in the last couple ofyears. "All that growth is not in commercial space ? about 45 percent ofit is," Rutan said.

"What we aredeveloping is something that we expect to be competitive 20 to 30 years fromnow," Rutan said.

Rutan said the problemwith space as a business is the lack of payloads. For now, flying people inspace is the only payload that makes any business sense, Rutan said. Doing so,he said, will foster needed breakthroughs in safety and lower operating costs.

Jeff Greason, presidentand chief executive officer for XCORAerospace in Mojave said that predicting routine suborbital passengerspaceflight "is like predicting when the egg is going to drop when it?salready on the way to the floor." Not only is it going to happen, Greasonstressed, there also will be multiple players vying for a market larger thanwhat was expected just a few years ago.

That translates intofaster price drops than first anticipated, "because that?s whatcompetition does," Greason said.

Debra Facktor Lepore,president of AirLaunch LLC, headquartered in Kirkland, Washington, likened thecurrent crop of space entrepreneurial firms as the "Wild West,"forecasting that today?s private space companies will become more mainstream– eventually replaced by another set of entrepreneurs with those"really wacky ideas."

One big roadblock to thewider use of affordable small launchers and payloads, Lepore said, is the U.S.  International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which make it difficult, andin some cases impossible, for U.S. companies to do space business abroad. ITAR,she said, stifles the creation of international partnerships. As a result, shepredicted, some nations will march ahead of the United States in technology,putting U.S. technological competitiveness at risk.

Lepore also stressed thatit is important for small businesses and entrepreneurs to maintain theircommercial and intellectual property rights – even if they receivefull or partial government funding of their projects. "That?s your realasset, and protecting that is paramount."

Lawrence Williams, vicepresident for international and government affairs for SpaceExploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif., said innovation and lowprices can be realized if the U.S. government facilitates true and opencompetition. That will permit "hard-charging, aggressiveentrepreneurs" to change the space industry – but only if the U.S. government removes financial economic inefficiencies, such as the enormous subsidiesfor the companies who participate in the U.S. Air Force?s Evolved ExpendableLaunch Vehicle program.

Rutancautioned that the "little guys" should avoid government funding."I think it?s the worst place to get money. You?ve got hundreds of peoplewho are on your board of directors and each one has their own agenda," hesaid, and it?s a relationship that leads to not taking risks and realizingbreakthroughs, he concluded.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.