Commercial spaceflight has been getting a lot of attention lately with the recent launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station and its safe recovery a few days ago. Human rated commercial spaceflight is next up for SpaceX and its competitors as they seek to get Dragon and similar vehicles rated to carry humans.
One corner of the spaceflight market that has received little press however — suborbital flight — has recently received a much needed boost. Scaled Composites, the developer of the SpaceShipTwo/White Knight Two combination for space carrier Virgin Galactic recently received an experimental launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin conducting rocket powered sub-orbital test flights.
The suborbital flight market came into prominence in 2004 when the Scaled Composites team, funded by Paul Allen and led by Burt Rutan, captured the Ansari X Prize. The $10 million prize was awarded to the team when their SpaceShipOne suborbital space craft successfully completed two manned suborbital flights within days of each other.
Since the technical challenges of sending a craft to sub-orbital space are much less daunting and expensive than sending a craft all the way into low Earth orbit, this field is much more crowded. Along with the Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites alliance, there is Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon.com co-founder Jeff Bezos, Armadillo Aerospace, founded by Doom creator John Carmack, Masten Aerospace Systems, and a host of others all vying for a piece of the suborbital flight market.
There is much potential for commerce in suborbital spaceflight in the forms of tourism and expanded scientific research, all of it at low cost compared to launches that achieve Low Earth Orbit.
According to an FAA report, by 2009 U.S. commercial space transportation and the services and industries it enables accounted for more than $208 billion in economic activity. Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has been awaiting the start of commercial space flights for several years while keeping themselves busy holding various space themed competitions and educational events. Virgin Galactic began building launch and training facilities at the spaceport in 2010, ceremonially opening their first runway there.
The FAA only recently completed work on the regulatory framework necessary to safely conduct routine sub-orbital spaceflights. It’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is responsible for licensing private space vehicles and spaceports within the U.S. Prior to the Ansari XPrize the office’s regulatory activities were limited primarily to large companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin that built launchers for NASA and the Air Force. SpaceShipOne and its contemporaries forced the FAA to scramble and create regulations that would govern how smaller scale commercial spaceflight would operate. The permitting of SpaceShipTwo shows that the process for permitting commercial space has been matured and is ready for other companies to follow suit.
With approval to begin rocket powered testing of their mothership/spacecraft combination in hand Virgin Galactic is well on its way to taking paying passengers to the edge of space and back. The rest of the industry is sure to follow and gain their slice of the sub-orbital spaceflight pie.