The commercial ‘exploitation’ of space has been developing for more than a decade. By exploitation I mean simply ‘making a profit’ from it. Lofting satellites into orbit was once the purview of governments. In fact, rockets into any level of space were usually government projects (and mostly military). That began changing a decade or two ago, particularly with the advent of communications satellites. More and more joint commercial/governmental rockets were launched to keep up with the demand. Eventually, rockets were launched by purely commercial interests. Momentum for a commercial presence in space, if not always highly visible, has been growing. It will be given a huge boost (pun intended) by the new mission of the United States space agency, NASA. It must, pending Congressional approval (not a certainty), actively support (read: fund) commercial efforts to supply rocket service for people and supplies to at least the nearest levels of space. NASA is thinking specifically of servicing the International Space Station (ISS). Commercial interests have other ideas as well, in particular, suborbital space.
Suborbital space means vehicles that attain the lowest reaches of space (or the highest reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere) and don’t stay there. They’re not far enough into space to attain orbit. This area is roughly from 80 to 120 kilometers (50-75 miles) above Earth’s surface. (The boundary of ‘space’ is usually placed at 100 kilometers – 62 miles.) Most of the attention given to space is not suborbital. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where the ISS and most satellites hang out is what most people associate with space. That doesn’t mean suborbital space is without interest or use – especially for commercial space companies. At the moment, it’s the region of space that can be reached by aircraft/space vehicles that behave more like airplanes than rockets. They take off sometimes from the ground but mostly from the back of an airplane; they fly a high arc into the boundary of space; and then they land. The craft are neither as big, noisy, nor expensive as the NASA space shuttle – and at this point, they’re not designed for extended time in space.
A recent conference in Boulder, Colorado (USA) called The Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference attracted 250 people, far more than expected. This was a conference about using suborbital space for research, just research. That’s a relatively limited field. Even so, there are a number of uses for suborbital research. It’s above the height attainable by balloons. It costs far less than sending something into orbit. Atmospheric, geographic, solar, and mini-gravity experiments can be done in suborbital space at far lower prices.
It’s a limitation that with current technology most suborbital flights in the mini-gravity (note: not weightless, just less weight) last only a few minutes. That’s still enough for some experimental purposes, especially when automated (i.e. computer operated).
Most of the companies that can attain suborbital space are the same ones whose ambition it is to push into Low Earth Orbit – or as it may be called, the race to be the first commercial ferry to the ISS. They see suborbital as a proving ground for technology and procedures that will later be extended to LEO. If they can make some money in the process – so much the better.
Conducting science or technology experiments is probably not going to pay the bills, but it will be a nice supplement. Bill paying, if it can be managed at all, will probably come from ‘joy rides’ – people riding into suborbital space for the thrill of ‘weightlessness’ and the spectacular view. Although nobody’s talking about it, there’s mention in the industry of providing private cabins for couples on suborbital flights. Five minutes out of a one hour flight might just be the ticket. Even with a number of companies involved, the suborbital experience will never be ‘inexpensive,’ but a few thousand (dollars, Euros, Yuan) may not be too much for that ‘special event.’
NASA will be interested in the science part, and in nurturing these suborbital flight companies so that they can make the leap to LEO. It’s easy to wonder how well the military-scientific-industrial complex mentality of the “old” NASA can adapt to the new era of commercial space. Especially since it will probably fall to NASA and its counterparts (ESA, JAXA, etc.) to regulate, inspect, and police the commercial wildcats.
Safety will be an obsession. As it should be. The transition to commercially operated flights raises many doubts – capitalization, technical know-how, and above all reliability. Space accidents tend to be dramatic and unforgiving. Governments, spending enormous sums of money on safety, have had their terrible accidents. It won’t take much for the commercial space industry to unwind if it has anything similar (at least in the first decade or so). Flying into suborbital space is inherently safer than remaining in orbit. For one thing, there is no ‘red hot re-entry’ – the one aspect of return from LEO that is the subject of countless dramas. For another, there’s no fireball launch – that sense of riding an explosion into space. Most suborbital flights are much tamer, like I said, more like an airplane flight. Still, safety will be an obsession, as it must be.
I know that many people have misgivings about the ‘commercialization’ of space. I think it’s more a worry about the sleazy commercialization of space. Space is already quite commercial – most of the equipment fired into space was built by companies making money from doing so. However, the big national space agencies have a certain aura, it’s tempting to say dignity. Their space adventures, even the robots, probes, and telescopes are ‘historic.’ There won’t be that same feeling for the gaggle of commercial space companies.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to apply the metric of the market to space. If we can’t find a way to make flying into space (at least to LEO) inexpensive enough to make a profit, then – well then, the era of man in space will take a lot longer in coming. The suborbital flight is the first test of that measure of achievement.
In the meantime, the more ambitious projects, whether accompanied by humans or not, will still be the purview of the national space agencies. There’s plenty of room in space for the dreamer, for romance, for the quick buck, and the historic events.