By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business
In previous articles, I’ve written about the annual Space Education and Strategic Applications (SESA) Conference, scheduled for September 22-23 this year. The theme of this year’s conference is “Fifty Years From the Moon: The Future of Commercial, Government, and Military Space Exploration.”
This year’s event promises to be an exciting one, and I will be among the speakers presenting at the conference. In my program, I’ll talk for a few minutes on the various ambitions of different private-sector space companies, including:
- Space tourism initiatives from SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic
- The Starlink telecommunication constellation
- Centrifugal launch accelerator concepts such as SpinLaunch
Space tourism has been a dream of space enthusiasts for as long as we can remember. But that dream is finally becoming a reality.
In fact, several companies are launching space tourism efforts right now that are poised to revolutionize the human use of outer space. Just last summer, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin both launched pioneering test flights of their respective spacecraft with actual tourists aboard.
Blue Origin utilizes a traditional vertical launch rocket for its flights. It made significant headlines by sending Star Trek’s original Captain James T. Kirk actor William Shatner into space at the spry age of 90.
On the other hand, Virgin Galactic uses a space plane concept that involves a mothership flight to about 50,000 feet, followed by a detachment of the space plane and a rocket ride up to altitudes that can exceed the Kármán Line. The space plane then glides back to Earth using an interesting feathering wing system.
Virgin experienced a major setback in 2014 when human error allegedly caused the breakup of one of the prototypes on re-entry, and the resulting crash killed one of the two test pilots. So it is particularly heartwarming to see Virgin finally succeed in their mission and bring its concept to reality.
To be fair, the flights of both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were relatively low-altitude parabolic flights, so it’s important to keep the scope of these flights in perspective. However, notwithstanding the short distance and duration, it is nonetheless exciting to see the space tourism industry finally taking off (pun intended).
On another scale entirely, though, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has taken space tourists to genuine orbit. Just a couple of months ago, SpaceX launched three wealthy businessmen to the International Space Station (ISS) for a fare of $55M USD each, and the trio spent a week aboard the ISS before returning home.
But interestingly, this SpaceX flight is not the first space tourist venture of its kind. In fact, the first one actually occurred more than 20 years ago when businessman Dennis Tito paid $20M USD to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS. Still, it’s nice to see that space tourism is becoming more popular and that it has a private-sector backing as opposed to a reliance on government operations.
Space tourism isn’t the only emerging business venture that Musk’s SpaceX is involved in, however. SpaceX obviously began as a space logistics operator, with contracts to launch satellites and other payloads for various public and private sector customers.
But in addition to hauling people and things into space, SpaceX has quietly launched a constellation of its own telecommunications satellites. The company can launch as many as 60 satellites in a single Falcon 9 flight by folding the satellites flat and stacking them on top of each other.
As a result, SpaceX currently has over 2,000 such satellites in orbit. However, this work is just the beginning; the company has plans to assemble a total array of more than 12,000 satellites for a complete global network.
So what is the end goal? SpaceX is operating this constellation under a subsidiary name called Starlink, and it aims to be a dominant world provider for telecommunications services, including telephone and broadband internet service.
I’ve written previously about how Starlink is poised to change the world. For a few reasons, including low latency and the ability to constantly refresh the constellation with new satellites, this new startup promises to give ground-based telecom companies a run for their money.
In addition, Starlink will be able to reach all corners of the globe, including countries and regions that currently do not have reliable access to telecommunications services. Starlink is already in limited beta operation for early adopters, and as it grows, the company could very well evolve into one of the most profitable businesses of the 21st century.
Elon Musk is the world’s richest person with a current net worth that fluctuates somewhere around $300 billion dollars. But some economists speculate that if Starlink is first to market with widespread and reliable space-based telecommunications services, the demands would be such that Musk could actually become the world’s first trillionaire.
Finally, there are innovative things happening here on the ground for space launch technology and design. For example, companies like SpinLaunch are looking at how we can make traditional chemical rocket launches safer and more efficient through wind-up sling launchers that would assist with initial ascents. In my recent article about spin launchers, I discussed their potential uses and why it would not be practical to simply fling payloads all the way into orbit.
SpinLaunch actually uses a two-phase ascent concept. During the first phase, a rocket is flung out of a spinning launch apparatus on the ground. In the second phase, the rocket reaches a target altitude and velocity achieved by the spin launcher. Then it ignites its engine and finishes its journey to orbit through traditional chemical propulsion. This kind of concept promises to make space launches more efficient and more reliable through combining different means of propulsion for a synergistic effect.
These private-sector innovations are just a few products that are currently in development. Other space experts presenting at the 2022 SESA Conference will undoubtedly bring us more exciting news from the front lines. We hope to see you there!