Two Anniversaries and Our (Private Sector) Future in Space

For those whose suborbital concepts focus on vertical takeoffs and landings, the Lunar Landing Challenge (LLC) has proven a spur to both team enthusiasm and investment. There will be several companies competing this month for first- and second-place prizes, including the aforementioned Armadillo and Masten and newcomers Unreasonable Rocket and BonNova.

The original X-Prize only had one serious competitor, but the variety of approaches being displayed in the LLC will provide a robust suite of technologies for affordable transportation not only for earth to orbit, but for access to other planetary surfaces as well. And it can be accomplished for a tiny fraction of the cost overrun on a typical NASA project.

Beyond that, it will provide a self-sustaining business base for some if not all of these new ventures that will allow them to provide affordable transport to both government and private customers. Their very existence has created a revolutionary new market for affordable space science that may provide the synergy with the providers necessary to profitably grow the industry. It will also demonstrate its value to the taxpayer by providing more science for the tax dollar. And as experience is gained in the suborbital world, the performance envelopes will be gradually expanded, flying higher and faster, applying lessons to newer generations of vehicles, until suborbital finally becomes orbital and space access finally becomes affordable, with all that implies for our future off planet.

It is a path from which we were diverted in the panic of Sputnik, over half a century ago, but are now firmly back on track as a result of that other anniversary half a decade ago. And with the continued disarray in the business-as-usual and unaffordable federal space policy, and as the establishment awaits a decision from the Obama administration in the wake of the Augustine report coming out this month, on this dual anniversary it’s looking increasingly like a new approach that will be unstoppable.