Image: Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off
NASA/Alan Ault
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:43 a.m. EST in this photo taken Dec. 8, 2010 during the key space capsule flight test for NASA's commercial orbital space transportation program.
updated 12/29/2010 11:02:21 AM ET 2010-12-29T16:02:21

The private space industry has long been viewed as fledgling. But this once-pejorative term has taken on new meaning this year, as a roster of successes and fast-paced growth throughout 2010 suggests private spaceflight is ready to take off in 2011.

This year saw the very first launch of commercial space company SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster, and later the first liftoff of the firm's Dragon spacecraft, which launched atop a Falcon 9 to Earth orbit and then was recovered from the Pacific Ocean. Another company, Virgin Galactic, achieved some major milestones, including the first glide test of its suborbital spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo. [ Gallery: First Solo Flight of SpaceShipTwo ]

Multiple private-sector space firms are moving into full power, going well beyond PowerPoints and hand-waving. Still, the coming year, according to experts and analysts contacted by, is likely to feature battles between "same old space" and the ascension of "new space."

Commercial landscape
"The space industry has never seen such a rich and varied commercial landscape," said Carissa Bryce Christensen, managing partner of consulting firm The Tauri Group in Alexandria, Va. "New markets are emerging and established ones are changing."

Christensen said that entrepreneurs are testing new launch and on-orbit capabilities in the real world, trying to move beyond development and demonstration and into sustainable, profitable operation. Large firms are changing their game plans in response.

"The successes and setbacks of 2011 are going to make it the most interesting year in the history of commercial space," Christensen predicted.

Commercial space is finally coming into its own, and 2011 represents a year of enormous potential for this developing industry, said David Livingston, founder and host of the radio/Internet talk show "The Space Show."

"The key will be to systematically move forward, building success upon success," Livingston said. "I believe the coming year will reward patience, achievable goals, business fundamentals, reasonable business risks and a safety mindset."

In terms of trends for the space industry, Livingston foresees a move away from big government programs in favor of economically managed and leaner commercial space ventures and projects.

"I believe this trend will continue through 2011 and beyond. That said, I do not think our space program should be one or the other, government or private," Livingston said."I believe we can now, more than ever, effectively create public/private partnerships to guide us into space and our future."

Squarely in the spotlight
The scheduled retirement of NASA's three-orbiter space shuttle fleet next year will also likely affect the landscape.

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"I think the environment for 2011, although much improved from the religious war in 2010, will still see continued debate about the future direction of NASA with shuttle retirement," said Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group that includes commercial spaceflight developers, operators, spaceports, suppliers and service providers.

Alexander said he thinks commercial space will be "squarely in the spotlight" with an expected ramp-up of both suborbital flight testing and multiple orbital launches and re-entries under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partnership agreements with U.S. industry.

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.

"So, with steady progress on the technical front, it should help to solidify NASA's new direction to develop commercial capabilities," Alexander said.

"2010 was the year that war broke out between commercial and cost-plus space," observed Jim Muncy, president and founder of PoliSpace, an independent space policy consultancy based in Alexandria, Va.

"A rational White House, which nobody can accuse of having an ideological bias in favor of commercial business and privatization, decided that the nation couldn't do much, let alone everything, the 'traditional' way," Muncy said. "To actually use the International Space Station and explore space, the private sector needed to play a greater role in both."

Muncy said that as nasty and counterintuitive as the long debate of 2010 was, next year especially in the context of the new Congress, which has vowed to cut government spending will see "the rubber hit the road" in several fronts of this war.

For 2011, Muncy forecasts:

  • At least two companies that operate suborbital reusable launch vehicles will fly science payloads for NASA, and piloted vehicles will have their first flight tests.
  • A SpaceX Dragon will carry a mammal to low Earth orbit and possibly to the International Space Station.
  • The effort to build a commercial crew spacecraft will move forward, while overall budget pressure on NASA will slow down Florida Senator Bill Nelson's grand compromise (which, among other things, gave money to commercial companies and NASA to develop and build new rockets).
  • The Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act's "informed consent" regime for Federal Aviation Administration regulation of commercial human spaceflight will clash with some politicians' desire to kill commercial crew efforts.
  • The fight over human-rating of commercial crew will get heated, as will a scrap for control over this rating between NASA's Johnson Space Center and the agency's Kennedy Space Center.

"Not a prediction but a hope," Muncy said, is that "Republicans will remember they like the private sector and stop mindlessly bashing commercial."

Fiscal meltdown
Rand Simberg, a space policy and technology consultant and a former aerospace engineer, isn't optimistic that Republicans will get fully behind commercial space.

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"Despite the growing confidence in the ability of the commercial sector to do human spaceflight, the incoming Republicans may continue to wage war on the new NASA direction, in opposition to their usual stated principles of free enterprise and competition, for no reason other than it came from a weakened Obama White House," Simberg said.

Overall, next year "may be the year that business-as-usual collides with budgetary reality," he predicted.

Simberg said that "even the most pork-devoted politicians will have to recognize that the only way for NASA to have a viable human spaceflight program going forward is to rely on fixed-price launch contracts from new, more cost-effective providers for the now-mundane task of simply getting astronauts to orbit and back."

On the suborbital front, Simberg said that 2011 may be the year that regular flights of fully reusable vehicles both horizontal- and vertical-landing will take off.

That being the case, Simberg added, such suborbital flights "will start to develop the experience in high-tempo launch operations that will inform the eventual development of cost-effective space transport all the way to orbit."

Availability and schedule
Likely to be a nexus of private sector space action is Spaceport America, now under construction near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic will run commercial operations from Spaceport America, with billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson recently setting his sights beyond suborbital passenger takeoffs.

"Virgin Galactic has shown in the past few years how private sector investment and innovation can lead to a rapid transformation of stagnant technologies," Branson said. "We are now very close to making the dream of suborbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past.

"We know that many of those same people, including myself, would also love to take an orbital space trip in the future," Branson added, "so we are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely whilst driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars."

Earlier this month, Branson revealed that Virgin Galactic will be supporting work done by Sierra Nevada Space Systems (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) on commercial space vehicles for NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program.

Both SNC and OSC are pursuing vehicle designs featuring reusable lifting-wing bodies and runway landings, which Virgin Galactic sees as possibly revolutionizing orbital space flight.

Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said that the pace of activity continues to pick up throughout the industry and Spaceport America is no exception.

"In 2011, we expect to be in the midst of our pre-operations phase hiring contractors, developing policies and procedures and conducting all kinds of tests and drills to ensure we are ready to go operational in 2012," Homans said.

Homans said that from the inquiries they have received, he anticipates Spaceport America's vertical launch area should be very busy in 2011. Other companies such as UP Aerospace, Armadillo and other operators have already inquired about availability and schedule, he added.

"I see 2011 as the year to get ready for 2012, when I predict we will have our first commercial launches from Spaceport America," Homans said.

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 since 1999.

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Explainer: Ten high-profile players in the commercial space race

  • Image: Obama at KSC
    Jewel Samad  /  AFP — Getty Images file
    US President Barack Obama walks past a main engine of a shuttle as he arrives to speak on the new course the administration is charting for NASA and the future of US leadership in human space flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15, 2010.

    When NASA's space shuttle fleet retires in 2011, the space agency will have to rely on Russian spacecraft and the private sector to taxi cargo and humans to and from the International Space Station, even as it turns its focus to the technologies required to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

    President Barack Obama views the policy as a boost to the nascent commercial spaceflight industry, where competition is already heating up to supply the taxi services. Some companies are also talking about offering out-of-this-world rides for researchers as well as tourists with deep pockets and a serious case of star lust. Click ahead to check out 10 of the top players in the race to commercialize space.

  • Space Exploration Technologies

    Image: Falcon 9 launch
    SpaceX's Falcon 9 rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, sending a test capsule into orbit.

    PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has already signed up NASA as a marquee account for his high-flying venture, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. The government has a $1.6 billion contract with the Hawthorne, Calif., company to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the International Space Station starting in 2011 with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

    This image shows the successful test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on June 4. The rocket will eventually carry the Dragon to orbit. If all goes according to plan, astronauts may get a lift as well, starting in 2013. SpaceX has also secured contracts to launch next-generation satellites for the telecommunications company Iridium.

  • Orbital Sciences

    Image: Orbital Sciences
    Orbital Sciences

    Another NASA contract — this one worth a reported $1.9 billion — is in the bag at Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, which is planning to supply the International Space Station with its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, shown here in an artist’s rendering. A newly-developed Taurus 2 rocket will ferry the cargo ship to space. If the opportunity presents itself, the company may advance plans to ferry humans to orbit as well.

  • Boeing

    Image: Space capsule
    Boeing is hard at work on the research and development of a new space capsule aimed at flying people to the International Space Station.

    Boeing, the aerospace giant, has unveiled plans to flesh out designs and build a new capsule-based spaceship called the CST-100, which will take cargo and passengers to the International Space Station. The development push comes thanks to an $18 million NASA grant.

    The Apollo-like capsule will carry a crew of seven and be designed to launch on a variety of rockets, including the Atlas and Delta rockets operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture known as the United Launch Alliance, as well as SpaceX's Falcon. Extra seats may be made available for paying passengers through a marketing arrangement with Space Adventures.

  • Masten Space Systems

    X Prize Foundation via AP
    This photo shows the Masten Space System rocket XA-0.1B, also called "Xombie" launching from the pad, traveling 50 meters above the ground at the Mojave Air & Space Port. Mojave, CA on Oct. 7, 2009.

    While big NASA contracts have already gone to big names in the commercial space industry, lesser-known Masten Space Systems is in the race to pick up taxi fares to the International Space Station as well.

    The company won a $1 million lunar challenge prize with the Xoie spacecraft shown here. It is now working on a next-generation vehicle based on the vertical-takeoff-and-landing design to ferry cargo. NASA funding will go toward four test flights of the spacecraft, called Xaero.

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation

    Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation
    Lewis Geyer  /  Times-call

    The reusable Dream Chaser space plane, under development by Sierra Nevada Corp. subsidiary SpaceDev , has a look and feel reminiscent of a mini-space shuttle. Like NASA spacecraft, a rocket lifts the space plane up — and at the end of its mission, the plane lands on a runway.

    In fact, the transportation system is based on NASA technology, and the company recently received $20 million from the space agency to continue the plane's development. A full-scale mockup of the plane is shown in this file photo from its unveiling in 2006.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    Image: Bigelow Aerospace
    Bigelow Aerospace

    Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow padded his bank account by building a hotel chain, Budget Suites of America. His latest pioneering venture, Bigelow Aerospace, is aimed at building affordable habitats in space.

    Two prototype inflatable capsules have already been launched, and plans are in the works to put the more expansive Sundancer space station, shown here in an artist's conception, in orbit by 2015.

    In this case, the overnight guests may include national space agencies as well as private-sector researchers and thrill-seeking tourists. Other players in the commercial space sector would taxi guests to and from the puffy digs.

  • Blue Origin

    Image: Blue Origin
    Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who amassed a fortune selling the printed word online, has few words to share about Blue Origin, his commercial space venture to fly a vertical launch and landing rocket to suborbital space.

    This much is known: A demonstration vehicle called Goddard, shown here in a file photo, successfully took off and landed in 2006 from the company's private spaceport in west Texas. It's not yet known when the company's commercial vehicle will be ready for a public unveiling.

    A bit more info: NASA recently awarded the company $3.7 million of a $50 million pie that it says is for the "development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems." Blue Origin is concentrating on the development of a launch escape system that could push a NASA capsule to safety in case of emergency.

  • Virgin Galactic

    Virgin Galactic
    The Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliner SpaceShipTwo makes its first crewed flight on July 15, 2010 over the Mojave Desert in California.

    Space enthusiasts with $200,000 to burn can book a ticket to ride to outer space with Virgin Galactic on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The plane, meant for tourism as well as research, will haul six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights that pop into outer space for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

    The aircraft was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and colleagues at Scaled Composites. Test flights of the spacecraft, which launches from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, are under way. Ticketholders will get their opportunity to ride once all systems are a go.

  • Armadillo Aerospace

    Image: Armadillo future spacecraft
    Armadillo Aerospace

    Would-be space tourists who balk at the price tag for a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo might consider another option in the offing: $102,000 for a seat on Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace's vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.

    The spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, will rocket passengers into outer space for about five minutes of weightlessness and 360-degree views. Tickets can be booked through Space Adventures, the same company that has arranged rides to the International Space Station for the super-wealthy.

  • XCOR Aerospace

    Image: XCOR Aerospace
    XCOR Aerospace

    Yet another option for the space tourist is a $95,000 trip up to the inky blackness at the edge of space in XCOR's Lynx rocketship. The spacecraft, which has room for just one pilot and one passenger riding shotgun, takes off horizontally from a runway and climbs steeply to 200,000 feet, where views abound of planet Earth and the stars. Advance reservations for the hour-long trip can be booked through space tourism company RocketShipTours. An artist's rendering of the rocketship is seen here.


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