Photos: The making of SpaceShipTwo

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  1. Birds of a feather...

    SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,Calif., on Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximatel 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights sometime in the next year - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ready for testing

    Onlookers inspect the back end of the mated WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes at the Mojave Air and Space Port during the rocket plane's Dec. 7 unveiling. The eight-person SpaceShipTwo, which was christened the VSS Enterprise, is the first of a series of space planes due to start commercial service in the 2011-2012 time frame. Tests of the rocket plane were to begin within days of the unveiling. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spaceship's debut

    Illuminated by colored lights, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership during its rollout on Dec. 7 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Anrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Welcome aboard

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for flight inside the mothership Eve's cockpit at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin on July 27, 2009. The airplane's pilot, Pete Siebold, and Scaled Composites engineer Bob Morgan help with the preparations. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. First step to space

    The WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane known as Eve flies over mountains during a test flight from its home base at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve is to serve as the mothership for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo's test flights are due to begin in 2010. (Robert Scherer) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Riding the wave

    Virgin Group employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at London's Science Museum in February 2007. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view. The fare is $200,000 per passenger. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A ride for the boss

    Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a grin as he stands in front on VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo airplane that will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to its air launch. Branson took his first flight on Eve in July 2009 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane is named after Branson's mother, who inspired the painting on the fuselage. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Window seats

    Windows dot the interior of the SpaceShipTwo passenger cabin, as seen during an early stage of the rocket plane's construction. The design is aimed at making sure each of the six passengers has a view of the curving Earth and the black sky of space from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers). (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Fire away!

    The full-scale rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo is successfully test-fired on May 6, 2009, at the Northrop Grumman test facility in San Clemente, Calif. The hybrid rocket motor was built by Scaled Composites and SpaceDev. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The making of SpaceShipTwo

    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is the result of a years-long development effort, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. In this photo, SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin is being placed on the fuselage inside Scaled Composites' hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Space Insider columnist
updated 12/31/2009 6:47:23 PM ET 2009-12-31T23:47:23

It's been a wild and crazy ride in space since the first decade of the 21st century began, but as 2009 gives way to 2010, the realm of commercial space travel has taken one giant leap into reality. Now, commercial space is on a growth curve, with a whirlwind of large and small companies ready to offer a variety of skills.

There is growing recognition of this fact, evidenced by the recent report from the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. The panel spotlighted the commercial space industry, advising NASA to encourage and use more commercial space services to support future human space missions.

Even so, the coming year is shaping up like a space-based game of "Truth or Dare." Some see a tradition-breaking paradigm in the offing, one that increases the reliance on the private sector for space tasks. Others are not sure, envisioning risky handshakes with firms that offer little in the way of track record.

Space moxie
There's a roster of big moments in commercial spaceflight throughout the last decade.

Over the past 10 years, Space Adventures, headquartered in Vienna, Va., has organized flights for well-heeled clients to the International Space Station. That highfalutin enterprise was kick-started in 2001 by the flight of Dennis Tito – billed by the company as the world's first private space explorer. Since then, six other wealthy space enthusiasts (most recently, Canadian billionaire and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte) have paid up to $35 million for similar treks.

Then there were the first private suborbital space treks via SpaceShipOne, bankrolled by software billionaire Paul Allen. Aerospace maverick, Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites squad pushed the frontiers of private space travel. In doing so, they won in 2004 the $10 million Ansari X Prize for commercial spaceflight. That momentum is resident in December's rollout of SpaceShipTwo — a six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital craft backed and operated by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

Slideshow: Year in Space Toss in for good measure two privately-funded prototype expandable space habitats that now circle the Earth. They were orbited courtesy of motel and construction mogul Robert Bigelow, aided by his Bigelow Aerospace team in Las Vegas. Those Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 vessels — launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively — are precursors to ever-larger modules and space facilities the firm plans to orbit in future years.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., better-known as SpaceX, was self-financed in 2002 by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. Over the last eight years, the company — which now employs 800 — has forged ahead with development of its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 boosters, as well as the Dragon spacecraft built to satisfy NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program objectives.

For true space grit, several smaller space firms have blasted their way to the forefront, such as XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. Kudos were earned by Masten Space Systems, also of Mojave, as well as Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace. This dynamic duo pocketed prize money by competing in the NASA-backed, Northrop Grumman-sponsored Lunar Lander Challenge. The two winning companies qualified for cash prizes — managed by the X Prize Foundation — by building and flying vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles that hovered for up to 180 seconds, translated horizontally, landed under rocket power, and repeated the feat in two hours.

Hope and prayer?
So there you have it: development of privately financed suborbital vehicles; increasing numbers of "pay-per-view" space travelers; commercial boosters and spacecraft for carriage of cargo and humans to and from Earth orbit.

All this "work in progress" remains just that. Several experts say major hurdles remain.

At first blush, it would seem there's been a shift toward the federal government embracing commercial spaceflight as a "crutch" to deal with an ailing NASA — a space agency viewed by some as in bureaucratic freefall and in need of transitioning to a more commercial-friendly stage.

"It's a complex issue ranging from legal to very practical issues," one that is an international issue as well as a domestic one, suggested Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs and adjunct professor of law at George Washington University in Washington.

Hertzfeld said a central question is this: Is the government's embrace of commercial space a budget issue or a "hope and prayer"? Also, another up-front question needs resolution — is there really a good definition of commercial space?

"To me, the bottom line test focuses not on commercial or government, but on who is really taking the risks, both financial and technical," Hertzfeld said. "And if you put almost all of the 'commercial' partnerships to that test, I think you will find the government is footing the risk in most cases, which means they will also end up paying for it eventually in one way or another."

Closing the business case
Commercial space has become "the cool kids' table" for a surprising number of very wealthy individuals, according to Carissa Christensen, managing partner of the Tauri Group in Alexandria, Va.

"Their personal commitment has enabled firms developing commercial space vehicles to weather recent economic storms, either through their own deep pockets or because their credibility as global entrepreneurs has attracted other investors," Christensen told Space.com.

Christensen stressed that balance is important in viewing the relationship between government and industry in commercial space. 

"Many areas of government reliance on industry are sensible and should be part of a durable national strategy, Christensen added. For example, government funding of research and development, purchases of commercial satellite services, and contracting for launches, hardware, and engineering support.

"There is a baby/bathwater thing to be careful of here," Christensen said. 

What about major obstacles ahead for commercial spaceflight?

"The biggest one is generating enough revenue to create a durable, viable industry. The challenges the industry faces are business challenges, far more than technology challenges," Christensen responded. "Just as a reminder, Concorde shut its door, and that wasn't because supersonic flight was too much of a technology challenge ... it was because, ultimately, the business case didn't close."

All that being said, Christensen has a positive view of today's private-sector landscape. She's been working in commercial space since 1987, and says "this is by far the most thrilling period I have seen."

Years of pressure
"What we are seeing in NASA is not a tidal shift in its relationship to the private sector ... but a small step towards a practical approach to space," said Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and a devoted NewSpace activist and agitator. "This is occurring because of years of pressure, repeated demonstrations of the private sector's ability to perform, financial necessity and the gradual ascension of those who 'get it' within the ranks of the space agency."

Slideshow: Year in Space Tumlinson said that if NASA is to ever move beyond low Earth orbit and get back to the sorts of exploration missions it did in the glory days of Apollo, "it must hand off operations to the people."

Cooperation in opening the frontier is the new key to success for all, Tumlinson said: NASA gets lower costs and the ability to focus on its mission of exploration while commercial space gets the funding and early catalytic markets it needs to grow and become vital on its own.

"Everyone wins ... especially the people who pay for it all, as they get an open and expanding new frontier in space," Tumlinson stated.

Results in place of rhetoric
It's time for the commercial space sector to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

That's the attitude of John Logson, a distinguished space policy guru. He's professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the Space Policy Institute within the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

"It seems to me that the coming decade will be for the commercial sector the time to provide results in place of rhetoric," Logsdon advised. Between contracting for commercial cargo and commercial crew to the International Space Station, he said, NASA is providing the kind of guaranteed market the commercial sector has said it needs to get over the financial hump.

"Now is the time for the commercial sector to deliver on its promises," Logsdon said. "A government-commercial partnership can provide the stimulus for much more rapid space development than we have seen in recent years. Then 'purely' commercial activities such as space tourism can follow," he concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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