Is private industry ready for space?

SpaceX is set to make history with its launch in May, as a number of private companies in the U.S are trying to reach above Earth's atmosphere

SpaceX set to make historic launch to International Space Station in May

A test-flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Dec. 8, 2010. (Scott Audette/Reuters)

Space Explorations Inc., better known as SpaceX, is about to make one giant leap for the private sector.

The company is poised to become the first private firm to dock and deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). It made its first attempt on Saturday, but the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft was aborted at the last second when onboard computers automatically shut down.

The next possible attempt at launch is Tuesday.

SpaceX has already done a pair of successful test launches to prepare for the mission.

Until now, space has belonged to government- and military-backed projects. The California-based company is sowing the seeds for private enterprise above Earth’s atmosphere, but some have questioned whether private industry is ready for such an expensive and dangerous undertaking.

"Why not?" is the simple response from Julie Payette, former chief astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency and a veteran of NASA space flights in 1999 and 2009.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette, STS-127 mission specialist, on the flight deck of space shuttle Endeavour during post launch activities on July 15, 2009. (NASA)

Payette is the scientific authority for Quebec in Washington on behalf of Quebec’s Department of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade. She likens the beginning of private space travel to the development of commercial aviation and the transportation sector in general, but says differences lie in the safety level, because of the environment and complexity of sending people to space.

"That doesn’t mean they can’t do it," she says.

"It's in the best interest of a commercial company that would offer space flight to people to do it properly, because they are not going to stay in business [otherwise]."

Along with SpaceX, a handful of private companies are dabbling in space transportation for people and cargo.

Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corp. are all working on different facets of space travel in the United States. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for example, bills itself as an "airline offering suborbital spaceflights" and is selling advance tickets at $200,000 US apiece for sub-orbital flights, which the company hopes will begin in 2013.

The stakes are high, and none of the companies agreed to do interviews about their plans. But while the companies are tight-lipped about their craft and schedules, Payette says she believes the private sector is more than ready to take on the challenge.

John Lodgson, founder of the Elliott School's Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, agrees. He says these companies have invested a lot of money, time and resources in these projects.

"They’re smart enough people not to take unnecessary risk," Lodgson says, noting the challenges will be "keeping their costs down, and being able to operate at a high enough frequency to offer seats at a pace that can eventually turn a profit."

Mining the heavens

Planetary Resources Inc. is another company hoping to be a major player in a new commercial space industry. It is looking at exploiting space and bringing some of its vast resources back to Earth.

The new private space company — backed by the likes of director James Cameron, Google founder Larry Page and a number of other deep-pocketed investors — announced on April 24 that it is developing technology required to mine minerals from near-earth asteroids.

Payette is a little more skeptical of plans to mine in space, noting that in all of space exploration history, all that has been brought back to Earth in terms of minerals so far is about 382 kilograms of moon rocks. She points out that humans haven’t been anywhere else but lower-earth orbit for more than 40 years, "so I think we have a little bit of development to do before we get there," and can profitably mine resources beyond Earth's orbit.

"It’s interesting and visionary to think we will in the next decade go to an asteroid to mine it and bring it back, but we’ve got a ways to go," Payette says.

She adds that she believes mining in space could eventually have huge benefits for humanity, "but 'eventually' may be a long time away."

As a long-time space scholar, the idea of resource extraction in space excites Lodgson, since the more people that get involved in such ventures, he says, the better it is for the combination of government and private sector programs.

He admits the profit margins might not be there right away, but says the fact that these ideas are being tested is a victory for science.

"It’s a well-conceived venture, but in terms of being an economic success, I would say it's high risk," Lodgson says. "The good thing about Planetary Resources is that they're one of the first companies to begin to go down the path to see whether these ideas are viable or not."

Government contracting

NASA's decision to retire its shuttle fleet has created opportunities for private ventures in space that could turn quicker profits. The agency has turned to independent companies like SpaceX — headed by Elon Musk, multimillionaire co-founder of the PayPal electronic payment system — for help getting astronauts and material into orbit.

In this April 29, 2012 photo provided by SpaceX, a SpaceX Dragon capsule on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket is transported to a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP/SpaceX)

NASA's Commercial Crew Development program — which is intended to fund private development of vehicles that could eventually transport astronauts to the space station — has handed out a total of $320 million so far to six private companies in the U.S.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6-billion contract in late 2008 to resupply the space station. The contract calls for a minimum of 12 flights, but there's an option to order more flights, which could boost the contract's value to $3.1 billion. SpaceX has done several successful test launches of its Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft in preparation of the upcoming cargo run to the space station.

Boeing is another of the leading players. It successfully test launched a spacecraft called (CST)-100 — nicknamed the "capsule" — on May 3 this year. John Mulholland, the company's vice-president and program manager for the (CST)-100 spacecraft project, says the goal is to take over transportation to the ISS as early as 2015.

"It’s designed for lower Earth orbit," Mullholland adds. "Our capsule will be able to take up to seven crew, or any combination of crew and cargo up to 2,800 pounds."

Mulholland says Boeing faces a different challenge than its competitors, because the company is attempting to transport astronauts as well as cargo to the space station. There is a little more room for "trial by error" for companies that only deal in cargo.

"The difference with cargo is if you lose cargo, yes it's money, and yes there are losers, but it doesn’t cost you human life."

Safety in the project is paramount to Mulholland. He himself was involved in the investigation of the Columbia shuttle disaster in February 2003.

"[We are] performing a number of risk reduction development tests," Mulholland says.

"Across all systems we are trying to very early get out in the field and do some demonstration tests to help us validate [the capsules] design, and decrease our risk looking forward."

Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. has also signed a development contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the space station using its new Taurus rocket.