Dec. 12, 2011 at 10:26 PM ET
If you think America's space effort is in a state of flux now, you ain't seen nothing yet: Just wait until billionaires Richard Branson and Robert Bigelow are vying to offer orbital hotels, or until there are as many brands of spaceships built in the United States as commercial jets.
That's the curious thing about Space Race 2.0: It's definitely a marathon, not a sprint, and the field of contestants have had dropouts (like the bankrupt Rocketplane Kistler) as well as drop-ins (like the Boeing Co.).
If any of the racers make it to the finish line, NASA will once again be able to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station on U.S.-built spacecraft, ending the post-shuttle spaceship gap. There may also be opportunities for businesses and foreign governments to purchase their own presence in space, in the form of private-sector space stations. Regular folks may be able to buy vacation packages that include a quick up-and-down on a suborbital spacecraft, or even a stay on one of those space stations.
There'll be new opportunities for space research and manufacturing as well. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institution as well as an adviser to the Blue Origin space venture, has called low-cost space research the "killer app" for the space travel industry — right up there with space tourism and space station resupply.
But what steps lie ahead for private space ventures, and what's the time frame for taking those steps?
A crucial year
For the companies seeking NASA's business, the next six months to a year will be crucial: Four companies — Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX — are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA to develop spaceships capable of ferrying astronauts to the space station and back. SpaceX and yet another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., have already been receiving NASA funding to support the development of unmanned cargo spaceships.
In February, SpaceX is due to launch a test cargo shipment to the space station and bring the capsule back to Earth. Orbital Sciences, meanwhile, is gearing up for its first test flight of its Taurus 2 launch vehicle in the same time frame. By 2013, both companies should be cleared for orbital cargo deliveries as part of a $3.5 billion combined deal with NASA.
The development effort for crew vehicles is more complex, due to the higher safety requirements. Last month, Congress settled on an allocation of $406 million for the next phase of the commercial crew development program, or CCDev. That's less than half of the $850 million requested by the Obama administration, and NASA hasn't yet laid out a revised plan for the next development round.
Based on the space agency's previously announced plans, the money for the next phase would be given out starting next July, for the development of an integrated system that includes a space-taxi capsule as well as the rocket it rides on. SpaceX can already offer the full package, which combines its Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon capsule. The other contenders will have to buddy up with rocket builders — either United Launch Alliance, which offers the Atlas 5; or ATK and EADS Astrium, which have proposed creating a hybrid rocket called Liberty. Right now, the Atlas 5 is the favored vehicle in the rocket race, but the next phase of CCDev provides an opportunity for dark horses like ATK to get back in the race.
As long as no one crosses the finish line, NASA is stuck in the position of paying the Russians $50 million or more for each seat filled by a U.S. astronaut heading to the space station. So the space agency has a powerful interest in making sure that at least one space-taxi operator succeeds. NASA expects that it'll be using U.S.-built space taxis in the 2017 time frame, but warns that reduced funding levels will slow down the timeline.
Suborbital space race
Meanwhile, additional companies are aiming for suborbital space business, either for research or tourism purposes. Among the major players in this particular race are Armadillo Aerospace, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace,
Virgin Galactic says it's on track to begin powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo craft early next year, with an eye toward offering suborbital trips at $200,000 a seat in 2013. Branson, the company's founder, is aiming even higher: "We're starting by suborbital trips, we'll then go to orbital trips, we're then going to look at space hotels. We're going to look at intercontinental travel at a speed much quicker than you can currently travel," he told me during an interview in October.
XCOR Aerospace plans to start testing its Lynx rocket plane in the air within a year, and wants to take on tourists starting in the 2013-2014 time frame.
Armadillo has partnered up with Space Adventures, the company that has sent seven paying passengers to the space station, to develop a suborbital launch system capable of carrying passengers or scientific experiments. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority says Armadillo ran a successful test of a reusable sounding rocket known as STIG A on Dec. 4. The rocket rose to an altitude of 137,500 feet (41.91 kilometers), and carried a scientific package from Purdue.
Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, is also working on a suborbital spaceship project that's separate from the NASA-funded orbital effort. (The company is bouncing back from the crash of a suborbital test vehicle in August.)
Next giant leap
Of course, there's no guarantee that any of these companies will get off the ground on the timetable they expect. This space race is notorious for slowing down the pace: Spaceship builders have been predicting that the golden age of private spaceflight is just two years away for the past 15 years.
The interesting thing is that the different companies are coming together in combinations that make the space race look more like a square dance: Space Adventures is teaming with Armadillo on suborbital tourism, with Boeing on orbital tourism, and with the Russians on trips to the space station and even the moon. Sierra Nevada is relying on Virgin Galactic's help for atmospheric tests of its prototype orbital vehicle, while Virgin Galactic is relying on Sierra Nevada to provide the hybrid rocket engine for SpaceShipTwo. Boeing is a partner with Lockheed Martin in United Launch Alliance, which plans to provide rockets for Boeing as well as two of its CCDev competitors.
Bigelow Aerospace, which has already put two of its inflatable space modules into orbit on Russian rockets, could conceivably purchase launch services from SpaceX or United Launch Alliance to establish future private-sector space stations — and it's teaming up with Boeing and Space Adventures to make the arrangements for orbital trips by tourists and researchers.
Where could all this lead? Would you believe to Mars? At least that's what SpaceX founder Elon Musk expects. He's teaming up with NASA's Ames Research Center on a proposal for an unmanned Mars mission in the 2018 time frame, and he has said SpaceX's rockets could send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 15 years if that's what NASA wants to do.
"The reason to do space and to try to push the boundary of space is that it's one of the coolest things that humanity, or we as a country, can do," he told me. "We want there to be cool things. Life cannot just be about solving problems. If that's all it's about, why get up in the morning? There's got to be things that are inspiring and make life worth living — and I think pushing the boundaries of space and the outer frontier is one of those things."
More on the future of spaceflight:
This report draws upon videos that are part of a Future of Technology package produced by msnbc.com's Matt Rivera. Stay tuned for a new twist in the saga of future spaceflight on Tuesday.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.