All across the world, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are taking their boyhood dreams of space travel and turning them into commercial space enterprises. Much of NASA’s work is now done by commercial companies. Indeed, when man heads off to the moon again over the coming decade, it will be commercial space vehicles – coordinating with NASA – that will carry the human payload.
Companies such as Boeing are developing space vehicles for private space travel. (Image source: Boeing)
NASA is all for it, since commercial enterprises take a good portion of the burden off taxpayer funding. “Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and others were inspired by the Apollo missions and they were frustrated that space technology petered out after that,” Loretta Hall, author of a number of books space development such as Space Pioneers: In Their Own Words, told Design News. When the manned spaceflight ended with the Apollo missions, these entrepreneurs nurtured dreams of taking the next steps. “Spaceflight didn’t progress beyond the moon like people expected it to, so these private citizens decided to do it themselves," sais Hall.
NASA leaders have viewed the emergence of commercial space companies as an encouraging development. “NASA views it as a positive when they have multiple technologies to choose from. In the past, they designed space equipment and choose someone to build it. Now, a lot of the raw research is going on outside NASA.”
Space Vendors Become Space OEMs
NASA has always used private companies to develop and product technology for space flight, so the aspect of private space technology is not new. “NASA has always had private companies building their equipment, usually aerospace companies already involved with military production,” said Hall. “Companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing were involved.”
However, in the past two decades, private companies have started to produce their own space-bound vehicle technology. “What’s new is NASA is no longer the sole customer for commercial producers,” said Hall. “Private companies are either building for themselves or building rockets for other entities. In the past, for anything related to space, NASA was the only buyer. That’s no longer true.”
The Space Passenger May Fund Space R&D
The concept of commercial space often comes from the idea that not all research and development funding has to come from taxpayers. “Commercial space is going into the technical areas of trying to utilize space resources for commercial purposes, and it’s also going in the direction of space tourism because that becomes a way to finance the more technical pursuits,” said Hall.
Even NASA plans to get into the business of commercializing space. “NASA has announced that beginning next year they’re willing to sell tickets for people to spend time on the International Space Station,” said Hall. “They see the value of commercializing space.”
A number of billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson all want to send private citizens to space. Their respective companies, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are dedicated to making space travel and space tourism more accessible. Here's how they plan to do it:
Managing Commercial Space Operations
In the past, NASA developed the program and used vendors to build to spec. In the past 15 years, commercial companies have started to develop their own technology. Now when they work with NASA, it’s under an agreement that NASA can’t disclose the technology. “NASA works cooperatively with anyone they’re trying to develop a space product,” said Hall. “Yet the commercial companies don’t want to share any proprietary technology with NASA unless they have an agreement.”
There are also restrictions on how commercial space companies can operate. For one, don’t expect any non-US conglomerates to buy up any of the commercial space companies. “There is a treaty called ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) that put restrictions on what technology American companies can share with other companies,” said Hall. “Anything they do is subject to government approval.”
Even with all of the commercial space development, NASA is still developing its own space technology. “NASA is continuing its development of space launch systems,” said Hall. “They have a rocket in development. There is question about whether it is going to be successful. There have been delays, but that’s sort of normal.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.
This summer (August 27-29), Drive World Conference & Expo launches in Silicon Valley with North America's largest embedded systems event, Embedded Systems Conference (ESC). The inaugural three-day showcase brings together the brightest minds across the automotive electronics and embedded systems industries who are looking to shape the technology of tomorrow.