Private companies are competing to provide transportation for both people and supplies into space, and there is no lack of competitors. Two companies in particular, SpaceX and Alliant Techsystems, seem to have separated from the rest of the pack and are frequenting headlines.
Alliant has the advantage of experience. It built the solid rocket boosters for NASA’s now-retired space shuttle program. Not only does Alliant have experience building rockets, but countless of successful missions into space have also already been completed using their rockets. Now that the space shuttle program is gone, the company plans to provide its own launching system using their Liberty rockets.
The Liberty rocket is a completely private design. It failed to receive funding from NASA after being out-competed by SpaceX in the Commercial Crew Development program. Alliant still collaborates with some NASA experts, but receives no public funding for their Liberty rocket program. Judging by the history of success Alliant has had with its rockets, it is safe to say that they will provide tough competition for other private space companies.
SpaceX has its own advantages. Its largest is the fact that its first mission is scheduled for May 19. The mission entails launching SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule, successfully performing a demonstration of maneuvers, and finally docking with the International Space Station. SpaceX is far ahead of Alliant in development, and if the mission is successful, SpaceX will almost certainly be the choice of NASA to provide transportation to the ISS in the future. In contrast, Alliant expects to launch its first mission in about three years.
It is clear that SpaceX has a notable head start, but the space race may require companies to be more of a tortoise than a hare. Only time will tell, but SpaceX has a long-game back-up plan that doesn’t rely on public funding or support. Instead, it has formed a partnership with another private company, Bigelow Aerospace, that is developing space habitat technology.
The plan is for SpaceX to serve as transportation and take people into space where they will board Bigelow’s space station. This joint effort may be the first product of a new space tourism industry and is a smart move for SpaceX. Participating in joint ventures with other private companies, instead of NASA or government agencies, prevents SpaceX from completely relying on government money, which tends to quickly disappear during tough economic times.
Will it be SpaceX, Alliant Techsystems, or some other company that will be the future of space travel? Neither of them are completely reliant on taxpayer money, after May 19both will have experience in space, and both seem to be planning for the long run. In the end, it doesn’t matter! As long as there is competition along the way, space travel will eventually be safe, affordable, and commonplace.