Historically space has been a nationalistic pursuit – as much driven by pride and paranoia as by the spirit of exploration and curiousity. For 50 years, space was ‘owned’ by governments, but the sun is setting on the age of space nationalism and is rising anew to greet an age of space capitalism. Private companies powered by idealistic entrepreneurs seeking the democratisation of space and (of course) driven by profit are pushing aside big government’s grip on the final frontier. A revolution is coming and space is set to claimed by the people.
It could be that, when our space-faring descendants look back on the moment that space travel really took off, 2012 is the year that their history books will celebrate.
Even now, the astronauts living on the International Space Station are gearing up for a milestone event in February – the first visit of a commercial spacecraft to their orbiting outpost.
Private spaceflight company, SpaceX, plans to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule on February 7 onboard their very-own rocket booster – the Falcon 9. Carrying food, clothing and other supplies, the craft’s mission is pretty mundane but it will be the first time that a craft not owned by a government has made such a trip – and it’s a task that the once mighty Nasa is increasingly reliant upon, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle programme.
In the true spirit of capitalism, SpaceX won’t have things to themselves for very long. Other firms will be testing their own space vehicles in 2012 with goal of performing similar tasks – as well as achieving loftier goals – in the coming years. Another American firm, the Sierra Nevada Corporation is building a mini-space plane called Dream Chaser. Resembling a sort of squashed Space Shuttle, Dream Chaser will initially supply the ISS but will also offer a commercial passenger service to and from orbit. The craft won’t be making any commercial flights this year but it will be undergoing crucial drop tests (to make sure all those fee-paying passengers don’t get barbequed on their return through Earth’s atmosphere).
Of course space isn’t all about orbits and re-entries – for many aspiring space tourists their first taste of ‘the big black’ will come in the form of sub-orbital flights. These flights will cheaper, safer and quicker – more of an experience than an adventure. Arguably the most famous of the sub-orbital contenders is Virgin Galactic and their super-sexy SpaceShipTwo craft. For them 2012 will be a pivotal year. As well as continuing drop-tests, the firm hope to finally power up their hybrid rocket for a proper flight test. It has been rumoured that the rocket has been plagued with problems (which is pretty much par for the course with any new technology) but a successful flight test this year will pave the way for tourist flights to begin in 2013.
Elsewhere, XCOR’s single-passenger craft, Lynx, looks to be making good progress and will continue testing in 2012 and it could be a close race between them and Virgin to see who will be first to fly fee paying customers to suborbital space.
Ok, with many companies projecting flights starting in 2013, perhaps 2012 won’t be the red-letter day in the history of private space flight, but it will be the year that commercial space enterprise goes from being a dream to becoming, at the very least, an imminent reality. And that’s got to be worth celebrating.