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Jan242013

3...2...1...NewSpace

"We can at least afford sleek modern graphics, even if we haven't proven we can afford to actually do what those graphics depict." (Credit: Deep Space Industries)

by Sarah Scoles

A few days ago the soon-to-be-or-wannabe-asteroid-mining-company Deep Space Industries (which is, by the way, an entirely male [like 100% male, including advisory board] company) announced that they will begin missions to nearby space-rocks in 2015 and use the material not only for earth-bound goals but also for fuel and parts for spaceships. Parts 3D-printed in space, obviously, because that's how the twenty-first century wants going to roll. DSI joins another company, Planetary Resources (which at least has a singular female employee), in the race to chip away at the leftovers of solar system formation.

These two companies embody the spirit of NewSpace -- the private, entreprenurial, and burgeoning industry of trying to send people to various places in space, ranging in the near-term from suborbital arcs to the International Space Station to Mars. With no realistic human space exploration plans in NASA's near future, and with money like the X Prizes at stake, the industry is, pun intended, taking off.

NewSpace companies' philosophies differ from those of NASA -- formerly the main US entity in charge of sending stuff into space -- primarily because they are companies.

  • They work on faster timelines, because they need to become profitable and because they want to be first and best to beat out competition. Imagine NASA saying today that they planned to launch a new type of ship in 2015. You can't!
  • They are dreamer-corporations, led by visionary types who also happen to have a lot of money and connections. They make grand statements like, "'If you can dream it, you can be it,' is our starting point (DSI)" and, "A passion for achievement and a thirst for exploration have driven humanity to accomplish its most historic advances (Golden Spike).
  • But they are definitely corporations. They are motivated not just by "thirst" for human advancement but also by being the ones to profit from that human advancement.
  • That's not necessarily a bad thing. Government funding, in case you haven't turned on NPR in a really long time, is short. And these companies are in competition with each other -- to do it first, to do it best, to do it differently, to do it for less. Who was competing with NASA? And why would NASA care? The amount of money it has does not depend on how much money it makes.
  • Besides, not only does NASA not have the kind of dough necessary to pull exploratory/human spaceflight off as fast and innovatively as private companies, it also doesn't have motivation. NASA is, above other aspects of its personality, a science-driven organization. And, "Hey, we can scrape platinum off this rock!" is not exactly a Nature cover story.
  • Many of them supply, or plan to supply, NASA and other federal organizations with orbital and suborbital crafts and hardware. But, again, they are in competition with each other for those contracts.

Anyway, there are a lot of these private space explorers. Or would-be explorers. They are all at different stages of development, and some of them will not succeed. But some of them will! And some of them already have. Here is a run-down of NewSpacecadets. It's not an exhaustive list, but it provides a representation of the kinds of corps that are out there.

Check out the Google Lunar X Prize Teams, which have adorable logos, facebook pages, and considerable technical prowess.

Quick, get the flyswatter (Credit: Armadillo Aerospace).

Armadillo Aerospace: First of all, funded in large part by John Carmack, who created the video games Doom and Quake. Right now, they're in the suborbital phase, but they want to go orbital. Noteworthy is their desire to both take off and land vehicles vertically.

Astrobotic Technology: This company focuses on landers. Their lunar lander has a reserved spot on SpaceX's 2015 flight to the Moon. Expedia. Dot com.

B612 Foundation: These people are planning to launch an infrared telescope aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in 2016 to map out all the asteroids that might destroy our lives. And then, later, they want to try changing the paths of asteroids, to see if they can be the ones to do it when it really counts.

Bigelow Aerospace: Owned by the guy who owns Budget Suites of America, this company builds expandable space "modules," like the one that they will attach to the ISS in 2015.

Blue Origin: Amazon's Jeff Bezos is in charge of this one, which currently has both orbital and suborbital reusable launch vehicles.

Copenhagen Suborbitals: Based in Denmark, this company has the philosophical aim of showing the world (specifically the EU) that spaceflight can be cheap, private, and safe.

Deep Space Industries: Mentioned above, they want to mine asteroids and use those materials to assemble and fix space vehicles in space. They have progressively larger and more active missions planned over a span of time, starting in 2015.We call this the Drumstick Suborbital Spacecraft (Credit: Virgin Galactic).

Final Frontier Design: Spacesuits! Wear them.

Galactic Suite Design: In addition to having a hand in Barcelona Moon Team's shot at the Google Lunar X Prize, they also want to make a space station in low Earth orbit and train their space tourists "James-Bond style."

Golden Spike Company: To the Moon! (To build a railroad?) To land a lander. Founded by Alan Stern, former NASA associate administrator.

Masten Space Systems: Another reusable, vertical-takeoff-and-landing company, but this time with a picture of a guy with shiny, long hair rubbing his chin on the website.

Moon Express: By building a lunar lander, this company hopes to win the Google Lunar X Prize. They have partnerships with NASA.

OpenLuna Foundation: This open-source project has a the ultimate goal of a lunar outpost of 6-10 people but begins with robotic missions. It is true that one does not want to reach for the stars right away. Slogan: "Because we've waited long enough."

Planetary Resources: Though their ultimate goal is to mine asteroids, and though they were the first to say, "We're doing this," they plan to start by doing science missions, with telescopes!

Scaled Composites: Build stuff for people! Like Virgin. And Northrup Grumman.

Sierra NevadaA corporation of which space-stuff is just a part, they build propulsion systems, small satellites, and are planning low Earth orbit vehicles.

SpaceX: This is the one most people have heard of, started by PayPal founder Elon Musk and paid for by all that money you spent on signed movie posters and someone else's collection of Bob Dylan 8-tracks. They already launch stuff. They're going to the space station. It helps out, you know, the Air Force with sending stuff into space. No big.

Stratolaunch Systems: Paul Allen of Microsoft and Burt Rhutan of Scaled Composites started this company, which had relationships with SpaceX, Dynetics, and Scaled Composites to build a three-part mobile launch system. SpaceX has since backed out.

Will space tourists wear fanny packs, too? (Credit: Faiz Khaleed).UP Aerospace: Will launch stuff for you.

Virgin Galactic: As the old Austin Powers-Virgin Airlines commercial used to say, there's only one virigin on this airline, baby, as Virgin is no stranger to flying. They have turned their sights toward space tourism and also have a fancy website.

XCOR Aerospace: Is chartering the flight that winners of the AXE Apollo sweepstakes will take. Tagline: Leave a man; come back a hero. Because that's what happens when you win a cushy seat on a suborbital craft by creating a fake astronaut profile on a website. They do other stuff, too.

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