In Part I of my 2013 year in review I discussed NASA policy and budget changes in 2013. The year for NASA can be summarized as continued excellence, with reason to be concerned for the future. Concern stems from the lack of funding or long-term policy. NASA always dominates space news, but much is also said of the emerging “private” or “New” space sector – as has been the case for the past decade – ever since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. In part II of my review I will discuss the developments in New Space in 2013 and whether I think New Space is finally about to deliver the revolution that we have been promised.
Part II – The Idea Frontier
The 2000s brought New Space to our attention, but the 2010s will be the decade that the dream is realized, fizzles out, or is replaced by New New Space. While Virgin Galactic is making powered flights (two short flights in 2013, none to space) a horde of other bold new companies are showing up, whose ideas make the idea of a blossoming suborbital space tourism sector seem mundane.
The crazy ideas (and I say that in the most respectful way possible) started in 2012 with the announcement of Planetary Resources: The Asteroid Mining Company. Planetary Resources got attention for putting money where its mouth is; with big name and big money backers like Larry Page, James Cameron, Eric Shcmidt, and Ross Perot. Planetary Resources was followed by Deep Space Industries, another independent asteroid mining company announced in January 2013. By that same time in 2013, Planetary Resources was already working on hardware, with a ground test article of their Arkyd spacecraft. One would think that with all the backing that Planetary Resources has, the development and launch of some small space telescopes wouldn’t be too much of a stretch – SpaceX is doing it with only one billionaire – but apparently they don’t have enough billionaires. In May 2013 Planetary Resources unveiled a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million towards the first step in their mission: the launch of space telescopes (which they call their Arkyd model) to discover the asteroids they will later mine. Planetary Resources may have single-handedly proved the concept of crowdfunding a space mission by raising to date $1.5 million towards their goal.
But then again, after about 8 months Planetary Resources has received less than half a cent in donations from each American. Contrasted with the taxed $48 or so per American that NASA received last year, it’s not much. Numbers like that shows why the billionaires are necessary, and they are all getting in on the game. In January 2013, billionaire Dennis Tito (who paid for a trip to ISS in 2001) announced his new space project, Inspiration Mars. The extremely ambitious mission hopes to launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018. The trip would be for only two people – preferably a middle-aged married couple, according to the company – but would aim to inspire the world. Hence the slogan “Send Two People, Take Everyone.” I personally think Inspiration Mars is a great idea. It does not seem to have any false or unreasonable pretenses – like intending to start a brand new multi-billion dollar industry of mining asteroids from scratch. Instead the goal is in the name: inspiration.
If achieved, the Inspiration Mars mission likely would change humanity’s perspective and focus – imagine the real life image of someone staring out through a spacecraft window at the globe of Mars? But Tito’s ambition is clearly bigger than his checkbook. A mission to Mars, even a flyby, is expected to cost billions of dollars, and no launch vehicle exists that would be able to send a manned vehicle on its way to Mars (the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy is expected to eventually be able to do the trick). So who pays for it? That’s what everyone was asking back in early 2013. Tito answered that question by appearing before a congressional subcommittee in November and proposing that Inspiration Mars be a joint venture with NASA. Who will pay for it? The American taxpayer? It was worth a shot, but NASA and Congress did not seem impressed or swayed by the proposal. Whether funded philanthropically or federally, Inspiration Mars would be an amazing feat. But for now the US Government won’t be helping out.
So Inspiration Mars started off as an interesting and exciting kind of New Space that quickly morphed into a grasp at money to make it an Old Space style venture, which Congress shot down. To qualify as “New Space,” generally a venture needs to avoid NASA and come up with new, novel, cheaper ways to grow the space sector on their own. Well, that’s where Mars One came in, announcing in 2012 plans to send the first manned mission to Mars as part of a reality show. Probably seeing the success of Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign, the Mars One project started an IndieGoGo campaign in December 2013 to fund their orbiter and lander precursor mission in 2018. As of January 18th they have raised just short of half of their goal of $400,000.
So where does this put us? We have a lot of people with a lot of new crazy ideas. When Deep Space Industries was announced early last year, its chairman Rick Tumlison was quoted as saying “One company is an anomaly. Two companies is an industry.” But that is yet to be seen. A lot of excitement and press briefings and a few crowdfunding campaigns is enough to get made fun of by Jon Stewart (as in this April 2012 episode), but in my book, results are what matter. As far as the frontier of crazy new ideas goes, 2013 was mostly a year of announcements with results yet to come.
But that doesn’t mean that we are not seeing the glimmer of the results first foreshadowed by SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize ten years ago. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo succeeded on 3 different powered flights in the last year: April 29th and September 5th of last year, and then recently on January 10th. They have yet to reach space, but they are clearly very close to being “operational”. Also in the suborbital sector, XCOR’s Lynx is still under development and is expected to make a flight test soon. However, on the other side of the coin, some of the promising young companies that were kicked off by the X Prize Cup and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge last decade have fizzled out. Armadillo Aerospace has officially been put on hold by John Carmack and Masten Space Systems never grew out of the tiny mom-and-pop operation they started as. They are doing interesting work, but are more like an R&D outfit than a company in a new industry. I don’t believe they had any flights in 2013 either.
The real results are clearly coming from the companies that are challenging the definition of “New Space” by not being afraid to work with the government to get their feet off of the ground. SpaceX is the most obvious success, with 3 flights of their Falcon 9 rocket last year, one earlier this month, and no major failures. They have demonstrated technical excellence with their low failure rate, by following through on their contract to resupply the International Space Station, and by their impressive efforts to develop a reusable rocket with their “Grasshopper” rocket. SpaceX is joined by other companies that are using NASA contracts as a funding source such as Sierra Nevada who are developing the Dreamchaser reusable space plan and Bigelow Aerospace, which may deliver an inflatable hab module to the ISS in the future.
SpaceX has even purchased nearly 100 acres near the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas with the intent to launch commercial and military payloads – leaving operations for NASA cargo and crew missions in Florida. SpaceX is quickly morphing into something much more Old Space, with NASA, Department of Defense contracts (if their Falcon 9 rocket is certified by the DoD), and comm sat companies as their main source of revenue. Perhaps 2013 was the year that New Space gave its last gasp before it faded away as a false dichotomy. After all, you can’t fund a high tech company off of Kickstarter and dreams. But you can fund it off of NASA and the DoD. Perhaps the distinction between New and Old space isn’t whether you are funded by the government or not, but rather what your motivations are, and whether you keep the dream alive. So far SpaceX is still run by an eccentric billionaire with dreams of Mars. Meantime, no one at United Launch Alliance, Boeing, ATK, or Lockheed is publicly saying the goal of their company is to send the human species to the stars. And if SpaceX can keep that dream alive, maybe there is something to New Space after all. We will have to wait and see.