Can Do Private Space Companies Set Tone for Future Spaceflight


On Monday, 47 years to the day after the Russians launched the world’s first satellite Sputnik, Mojave Aerospace, a private space company, will attempt to win the Ansari X Prize with their second launch in less than a week and demonstrate to the world that America is still the leader in space.

The Ansari X Prize competition was created to foster a nascent private space industry and inspire a new generation of explorers. The winner of the Ansari X Prize will pocket a modest $10 Million cash prize. To win it they must privately finance, build and launch a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), return safely to Earth and repeat the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks.

The prize is modest when you consider the cost of developing a space program, albeit a small private one. It took about three and half years to develop Mojave Aerospace’s SpaceShipOne at an estimated cost of $25 million from a concept conceived of eight years ago. And with the announcement earlier this week by the Virgin Group, led Sir Richard Branson, that they had licensed the SpaceShipOne technology for $21.5 million, Mojave looks to be recouping its investment and then some.

The Ansari X Prize competition has attracted 24 teams, some more credible than others, but all willing to find investors and compete for the prize. And while the Mojave team may very well win the X Prize, several other teams plan to continue on with development of their programs. This includes the da Vinci Project entrant “Wild Fire”. This Canadian based team appears to be close to launching its maiden rocket sometime later this month after the Canadian government gave them approval yesterday.

Several other small private aerospace companies not competing for Ansari X Prize are also making news. According to Aviation Week, Bigelow Aerospace, who are developing inflatable space modules, plan to announce shortly the creation of yet another prize competition, this one for $50 million, called America’s Space Prize that will go to whoever develops a spacecraft that will service their inflatable space modules.

And yet another company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), plan to launch their first partly reusable rocket Falcon 1 early next year. In developing their space program, SpaceX has created new technology, which they claim allows them to reduce the cost of launch four times lower than their nearest competitor and increase reliability.

In a time where America finds itself rebuilding its public manned space program after the Columbia tragedy and trying to build on the president’s new vision for space exploration, can do private space companies are helping to set the tone for future spaceflight.

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