Entrepreneurs Transforming U.S. Space Industry

A Boeing CST-100 crew module docks at a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

Upon arriving in Florida for the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, I was pleased to see the front page of the Orlando Sentinel’s Sunday edition was dominated by a large front-page story about Robert Bigelow and his plans for private commercial space stations. There is not much new in the article, but it does contain this astute observation from Bigelow Aerospace’s Mike Gold:

He said the current crop of new space entrepreneurs — such as Bigelow and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk — bring to the table not only personal wealth but also a business sense developed in other industries, including what Gold called “good subcontractor management.” (SpaceX, for example, designed, built and launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule for less than $1 billion, almost a rounding error in the typical NASA contract.)

Bigelow came from the hotel industry while Musk is a product of Silicon Valley. You can definitely see those influences in the way these two men go about building their companies, marketing their products, and promoting their ventures. Bigelow, for example, will lease space on his station in the same way he does lodging for his Budget Suites chain. Musk focuses on streamlined production and makes full use of new social media channels developed in Silicon Valley.

They are not the only ones to make their fortunes in different industries first before turning their attention to space. Richard Branson made his fortune in records, entertainment, and transportation before founding Virgin Galactic. Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin got rich with Amazon.com while Armadillo Aerospace’s John Carmack and millionaut Richard Garriott invented video games.

The fresh approaches they are bringing to space — coupled with NASA’s push toward commercial human spaceflight — are beginning to slowly transform the industry.

Traditional aerospace players — long accustomed to building government spacecraft for NASA — slowly have begun to embrace the idea that NASA would rent rockets rather than own them.

Indeed, the company that was supposed to build NASA’s next moon rocket — a program that Obama canceled in October — now wants to use that design for a commercial rocket, in partnership with the European company Astrium, which built the successful Ariane rocket.

Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota announced recently that this new rocket would compete with SpaceX to transport crew to the space station.

And United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that launches Atlas and Delta rockets, recently was listed as one of 42 parties interested in NASA’s latest contract to use commercial companies to launch astronauts into space.

As happens often in Silicon Valley, nimble start-up companies that are able to develop new technologies and ways of doing things end up partnering with older, established firms. Bigelow Aerospace’s has linked up with Boeing to develop the CST-100 crew module. Boeing officials say that Bigelow has taught them valuable lessons on how to achieve things faster and cheaper than they are used to doing.

The CST-100 is being designed for launch on ULA’s Atlas V, whose heritage goes back 40 years to John Glenn’s orbital flight. The Atlas V is also the booster of choice for at least two other commercial crew proposals that NASA is considering funding under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

ULA has also partnered with XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. to develop a new upper stage engine. XCOR’s ultimate goal is to develop reusable engines that can power suborbital and orbital vehicles at a fraction of today’s cost. Such an achievement could transform space travel.

As human spaceflight moves into the commercial era, innovative partnerships have developed in the marketing and promotional areas. The pioneer has been Space Adventures, which arranges trips for billionauts to the International Space Station. The company has also partnered with Boeing and Bigelow to sell seats aboard the CST-100 and with Armadillo Aerospace to market its suborbital flights.

Virgin Galactic, which is building its suborbital SpaceShipTwo, is bringing its unparalleled marketing and promotional skills to commercial crew proposals by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation.

The new entrepreneurial spirit that is infusing the space community is a much welcomed development. It has the potential to vastly open up space for a variety of uses that could help transform life on Earth and humanity’s place in the cosmos. I only hope that NASA can stay the course and provide the sort of assistance this new industry needs to reach its full potential.