Private Spaceflight Takes Off

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Private Spaceflight Takes Off

When a SpaceX spacecraft lifted off this past December, orbited the Earth, and was recovered in the Pacific Ocean, it represented more than just a small step in rocketry.  It was one giant leap for the private-sector space industry.1

This orbital flight was the first for a private venture, and it indicates just how far this industry has come.  The fact is, private-sector space firms are poised to move beyond pie-in-the-sky to actual spacecraft-in-the-sky, delivering sustainable, profitable operations.

SpaceX is one of these firms; its proven Falcon 9 booster sent the Dragon spacecraft on a trip around the Earth.  With a look to the future, Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX stated, "We're beyond the 'Is it possible?' [stage].  We did it, and now we move on."  

Also eyeing the sky, and the hopefully lucrative space business, is Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire Sir Richard Branson.  Branson is betting that people will line up for the chance to take a trip into space. 

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According to Branson, "We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past."   He adds, "We are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely while driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars."

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So why has private industry spaceflight finally taken wing, now?  Certainly, it's due in large part to the many recent advancements in materials and other technologies.  But another key component is support from a surprising source:  NASA.

In a startling break with the past, the Obama Administration has ordered NASA to focus on an initiative that will effectively outsource most manned spaceflights, turning to private industry to design and develop the rockets and spacecraft needed to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.2

There are in fact, two agencies set up within NASA that are working toward this end:

  • 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.
  • NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services partnership agreements wing, known as COTS, is working with U...

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