On October 12, a 160-wheel transport carried the space shuttle Endeavour through Los Angeles at a stately two miles per hour. As the shuttle—the centerpiece of American space exploration for the last 40 years—paraded to its final resting place at the city's California Science Center, the future of spaceflight was orbiting overhead: Space Exploration Technology (SpaceX) Corporation's Dragon, an unmanned capsule, was circling 240 miles up, delivering nearly 900 pounds of food, water, and equipment to the International Space Station.
Industry stakeholders have been heralding the dawn of private spaceflight for nearly a decade, but the 2012 success of SpaceX and several other companies, along with the announcement of innovative new ventures, suggests the era has finally arrived. "This year was pivotal," says Phil McAlister, NASA’s director for commercial spaceflight development. "We actually have real performance. It’s no longer hypothetical."
The breakthroughs come just in time. In 2011 NASA ended the space shuttle program and announced an unpopular plan to pay Russia to transport U.S. astronauts into space. NASA was clearly banking on private companies to step up. In May they did, as SpaceX’s Dragon became the first nongovernmental vehicle to dock with the ISS. The company has also signed a $1.6 billion, four-year contract with NASA to haul cargo; that October flight carried its first delivery. SpaceX is now vying with Orbital Sciences—which has its own space station trip planned early this year—to become a UPS of low-Earth orbit.
Over the next few years, NASA is hoping for similar commercial success in taxiing astronauts. In August the agency split $1.1 billion among SpaceX, Boeing, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation for developing a shuttle successor. Sierra Nevada recently finished a prototype of the Dream Chaser, a revamped version of a NASA vehicle that never reached the launchpad. SpaceX plans to use a modified version of its Dragon capsule to accommodate passengers, and Boeing is developing a crew capsule dubbed cst-100.
The companies are assuming that NASA will not be their sole customer. Boeing has signed an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas company planning to launch a space station for government and corporate research. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will take the first generation of space tourists on suborbital flights as early as this year. And Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is designed to carry passengers, dock with various stations, and repair broken satellites.
Entrepreneurs hope this combination of tourism, research, and exploration will add up to a viable spaceflight economy. A forward-looking entrant is Planetary Resources, whose high-profile backers include Google founder Larry Page and Microsoft Word developer Charles Simonyi. In April the company announced a plan to mine asteroids for water and minerals that could be used to supply orbiting stations or permanent outposts in the solar system.
Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki, a NASA veteran, admits this business plan might have been laughed out of boardrooms a few years ago. Now, due in part to the success of SpaceX, the situation has changed. "It’s gotten to the point where things like this are becoming more and more possible," Lewicki says. "It’s going to be a terribly exciting next couple of years."