More and more, the near future of America’s space program, especially on Florida’s Space Coast, is being driven neither by NASA nor other government agencies but by a rising industry of rocket and space technology companies.
With SpaceX returning to regular launches and planning bigger rockets soon, United Launch Alliance continuing its steady fusillade of rockets, and rapid space technology advancements, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the region are getting busier but are now rarely the sites of government missions.
This is becoming a business complex now, with NASA funding the development of companies with grants and contracts, sometimes of billions of dollars, leasing out spaces at Kennedy Space Center for the companies to set up operations, and then becoming a customer to many of those private companies.
The Air Force and other services have long been clients and facilitators for private rocket firms — principally ULA — to launch Department of Defense payloads, and they, too, are making more space for private companies at Cape Canaveral AFS.
And Space Florida, the state-chartered space industry development corporation, is finding itself increasingly busy cutting deals to provide state incentive money to draw more and more of the nation’s space business to where the country’s space sector began, the Space Coast.
Last week, Space Florida approved $26 million in grants to Blue Origin, a Washington-based rocket company that will be setting up manufacturing, processing and launch operations at the Cape, and arranged deals with three other (unnamed) companies to follow, with $20 million in additional pledges of state money.
But while NASA, the Department of Defense and Space Florida are providing government support and sometimes playing chief customer, the “new space” companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, the legacy space companies such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin and Orbital ATK, and the next wave of companies are chasing dollars from other private companies.
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation trade group, said 2016 is the year some companies lining up behind SpaceX will be performing essential tests and getting ready to go into operational business. Companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, XCor, Masten, Sierra Nevada Corp., Moon Express and others will be rolling out new vehicles.
“We haven’t had this kind of excitement in the space program for a long time, where there are a lot of different things all coming together at once for a lot of companies,” Stallmer said.
But it also means, in a pivotal election year, that private space could become a growing campaign issue. Not everyone is comfortable with the government turning over the keys to space. That’s especially true since the new Commercial Space Act, approved and signed into law this fall, waives much of the liability for the private companies, should they have disasters.
A few Republicans are uncomfortable with how the commercial space race is primarily driven by President Barack Obama as a way to get NASA out of lower-orbit space exploration. Some Democrats, notably U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a U.S. Senate candidate, vigorously opposed the liability-waiver provisions and expressed weariness that NASA may be acting too swiftly, perhaps rashly, in privatizing space.
Still, the private demand for private space is growing quickly.
High-speed advancements in nanotechnology, the Internet, and communications technologies, and the demands for bandwidth, are combining to create an explosion of private interest in satellites. Somebody has to launch them.
“We could see as many as 2,000 satellites launched over the next decade,” Space Florida President Frank DiBello told his board last week. “I can tell you that we’ve been capitalizing on that and focusing our efforts in the near future to respond to this need.”
The science-fiction notion of space mining may become a reality in the next few years. So, too, the concept of space research and manufacturing in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals to metal alloys and plastics. The International Space Station is demonstrating many of these potentials, but the astronauts there are not there to produce commercial products.
Among future developments:
— SpaceX plans to test launch its big new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, this spring or summer from the former Apollo Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX has overhauled and now controls. When it goes up, the Falcon Heavy will be the biggest, most powerful rocket in use in the world, capable of hauling 40 tons, and going deep into the solar system.
— Virgin Galactic, which suffered a disaster in late 2014 when a test version of its SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing the co-pilot, plans to roll out its full-sized SpaceShipTwo as early as next month.
— Blue Origin plans to break ground by this summer on its Cape Canaveral facilities, to support its New Shepard rockets.
— Sierra Nevada Corp., which just won a contract from NASA to become a third cargo-hauling service to and from the space station, along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK, and is setting up processing facilities at Kennedy, plans to test launch its Dream Chaser space plane on a ULA Atlas V rocket late this year.
— Masten Aerospace, which is building a fleet of reusable, suborbital rockets marketed for testing customers’ space equipment, and competing to construct a new space plane for the Air Force, is exploring setting up operations at Cape Canaveral.
— Moon Express, which is building moon landers to explore mining of everything from water to helium-3 to platinum, and which expects to expand its Cape Canaveral presence, plans to send one of its spacecraft to the moon in 2017. The company is getting in-kind support from NASA, in anticipation of serving NASA later.
“NASA is learning how to get out of the transportation business and hand that job over to the private sector, where they become a customer,” said Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards. “That same model is being extended to the moon.”
So is the model of business competition, which involves driving down costs and prices to customers, something NASA rarely had to face. That, as much as anything, has some politicians worried: would the space race involve dangerous corner-cutting? Indeed, NASA experienced that allegation with its Apollo 1 and space shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters.
“It has to be brought up. It will be brought up,” Stallmer said. “What we’re doing in space exploration is difficult. That’s no secret. But I think it’s in our DNA to push the envelope. We’re a nation of explorers. Hopefully, we’ve learned a lot of lessons from those tragedies. All those companies are continuing to build off their safety records.”
In part, the space race driven by billionaires determined to win. The key development now is creating reusability of rockets and other spacecraft, to greatly lower prices.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos have made big commitments to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Vulcan Aerospace founder Paul Allen have not, yet, though Space Florida offers the former Shuttle Landing Facility the agency operates at Kennedy Space Center as an ideal place for them to land the space planes they’re developing.
The fact that some of these moguls like each other perhaps only slightly more than the United States and the Soviet Union did in the 1950s and ‘60s may fuel their ambitions to win the space race. The current goal is being first with that reusable rocket.
In November Bezos successfully landed one of his New Shepard rockets in Texas, a month before Musk could do the same thing with his Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral. Musk declared victory anyway, sniffing that Bezos’ accomplishment was only a suborbital test flight, not a real and orbital mission like his. Then Bezos upped the contest by relaunching and re-landing the same New Shepard two weeks ago, proving he had achieved true reusability.
“Though we don’t know that Bezos rushed, we don’t know that,” observed Space Florida’s Dale Ketcham. “It’s not unlikely that his flying that one over again was just to yank Elon’s chain.”
“We’re going to see more development based on that personality conflict than from a couple billion dollars spent by NASA,” Ketcham predicted. “American history is replete with a lot of great technology successes that just came from pissing contests.”