The space race started 60 years ago between the USA and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers were going head to head for almost two decades, before ending their rivalry with a handshake in space. This marked the start of international collaboration, where governments reserved the sole right to the great beyond.
But over the past decade, the world witnessed a huge change. The space environment is no longer exclusive to government agencies. Private companies have entered the exploration domain and are propelling the sector forward more vigorously and swiftly. The entry of the private sector into space exploration brings numerous
benefits. These high-tech companies can develop technology faster and with fewer regulations than government-owned agencies. The funding can be used exclusively for the space race. And lastly, they gained recognition for contributing to economic growth due to being valuable targets for investment.
With dozens of privately-owned companies, it seems a new space race has begun. But who are the main actors, and what is their technology?
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, is a private American aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk in 2002. The goal of this company is to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate ambition to reduce space transportation costs and eventually enable the colonization of other planets. As part of this quest, SpaceX specialized in the design, manufacture, and launch of rockets.
SpaceX is considered to be the most high-profile commercial spaceflight company in the world. They continue to demonstrate technological superiority, and their success has been spectacular so far. They developed a series of Falcon rockets, with the latest one having 50% more powerful engine than its predecessors. In 2008, these rockets
were the first privately funded liquid-propellant rockets in orbit. Furthermore, SpaceX is the first company to successfully launch and send a spacecraft to International Space Station in 2012.
This solar-powered spacecraft, known as Dragon, is designed to be grappled by the space station’s robotic arm. The Dragon has flown 20 resupply missions between Earth and ISS under a partnership with NASA. The launching of Dragon 2, the first crewed spacecraft, is scheduled for May 16, 2020. Recently, Musk unveiled the design of its new interplanetary transport system called Starship. It will be the largest rocket ever made on its debut voyage to space and is planned to be fully reusable.
The future of this company is highly dependent on its charismatic and ambitious CEO Elon Musk and external investors. The space race is incredibly expensive, but SpaceX is one step closer to making space colonies a reality.
The recent few years can be considered successful for Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000. Much like SpaceX, one of their goals is to lower the cost of space transportation and increase its reliability. Additionally, their ambition extends to achieve commercially available suborbital human spaceflights. In short, they are targeting the space tourism industry.
Their technology is focused on rocket-powered vertical takeoff and vertical landing vehicles. In 2015, they launched their first spacecraft called New Shepard. With its engines capable of reaching a top speed of 2,284 mph, the spacecraft could reach 100km altitude and be back on Earth in just 10 minutes. The company continues to conduct unmanned test flights for the time being, with several crewed flights being postponed until further notice.
Blue Origin is known for employing an incremental approach in the development of their technologies. They started with suborbital flights and are gradually moving on to orbital, with each development being built upon previous achievements. In 2019, Jeff Bezos unveiled and announced a moon lander known as Blue Boon. It is set to be ready by 2024.
A direct competitor to Blue Origins, Virgin Galactic described itself as the world’s first commercial space line. Founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, this company plans to carry six passengers at a time into suborbital space. Each flight would last two and a half hours, and the lucky few would experience about six minutes of weightlessness.
The technology of Virgin Galactic differs heavily from the rest of the competition. Their spacecraft, SpaceShip Two, is not launched from the ground. Instead, it is released into space from a jet airplane. This is no ordinary plane, but a mothership that can reach an altitude of 18km before releasing the rocket-powered spacecraft.
SpaceShip Two can reach an altitude of about 100km and has been successfully tested for the first time in 2013. In 2016, the company developed a second spacecraft named VSS Unity that successfully launched to outer space in 2018. The maximum speed of the spacecraft is 2,500 mph, and the company expects to start transporting first passengers in the following years.
Since Virgin Galactic focuses heavily on the future space tourism industry, they have already accepted bookings for theseflights. The tickets cost $250,000, and there are currently over 500 individuals who already made deposits.
Sierra Nevada Corporation
This privately held aerospace corporation specializes in electronic systems and integrators for microsatellites and commercial orbital transportation services. It is one of the biggest NASA’s contractors and has 34 locations across the US, Great Britain, Germany, and Turkey. It was founded as a small business in 1963 by John Chisholm.
In 1994, it was purchased and expanded by Fatih and Eren Ozmen, who currently act as CEO and President of the company.
In early 2000, the company started the development of Dream Chaser orbital spacecraft. It was originally supposed to be propelled by twin hybrid rocket engines. But when they were awarded their first NASA contract in 2010, it was quickly dropped in favor of Orbitec’s Vortex engines, which use propane and nitrous oxide as propellants. Along with two other companies, Sierra Nevada Corporation was tasked with designing and developing the next generation of human spacecraft.
The Dream Chaser will resupply International Space Station with both pressurized and unpressurized cargo.
The spacecraft would be launched from Atlas V and Vulcan-Centaur rockets; both being developed by United Launch Alliance. The first mission is scheduled for 2021. Along with several NASA contracts, this company attracted the attention of the United Nations Office for Outer Space. They have selected Dream Chaser to represent United Nations member states that have no space program of their own.
The proposed mission carrying up to 35 payloads, would launch in 2024.