Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Ups and downs of commercial spaceflight

This year — the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing — will be a landmark year for commercial space flight

This year — the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing — will be a big year for commercial space flight

An unmanned capsule of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is seen as it was lifted out of the ocean and loaded on the recovery ship, after splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean, in this still image from video from NASA Commercial Crew, in the Atlantic, about 200 miles off the Florida coast, U.S., March 8, 2019. (NASA/Reuters)

While SpaceX recoils from the catastrophic loss of its crew capsule, intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, competitor Blue Origin completed the eleventh successful test flight of its capsule, and Sir Richard Branson announced he will be aboard the first commercial flight on his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo this July to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon.

Private space flight for paying customers is on the cusp of becoming reality. SpaceX has been running cargo missions to the space station for years, and recently tested its new crew capsule with a successful unmanned mission in early March that docked with the station.

The plan was to fly the first astronauts later this year, possibly to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20th. But that plan is now on hold following the complete destruction of that same capsule during a test, which was ironically, of the escape system designed to protect astronauts in case of an explosion.

A cloud of orange smoke rises over nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as seen from Cocoa Beach, Fla., Saturday, April 20, 2019. SpaceX reported an anomaly during test firing of their Dragon 2 capsule at their LZ-1 landing site. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, this week, Blue Origin, also testing its New Shepard capsule to take tourists on short hops into space, launched 38 experiments into sub-orbital space, many designed by students.

Some of these experiments were university student projects or came from private researchers that were sponsored by NASA under its flight opportunities program.

Three different ways to space

There is a huge difference between the flights of these three private space companies. SpaceX is the heavy lifter, under contract with NASA, picking up where the space shuttles left off. It has developed big rockets powerful enough to deliver satellites to orbit, or bring cargo and eventually astronauts to the space station. Their Falcon Heavy version, currently the world's most powerful rocket, could reach the moon or even Mars.  

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are much smaller rockets designed for tourists who want the ultimate high adventure. The first blasts off from a launch pad, flies straight up, lofting its capsule just above 100 km, considered the boundary of space, floats weightless for a few minutes, then parachutes straight back down again, landing not far from where it started.

Virgin Galactic is a space plane launched from an aircraft that rockets to the edge of space and glides back to the same runway it took off from. Following Richard Branson's publicity flight this summer, the company plans to begin regular tourist excursions at $250,000 U.S. a pop.

The plan is to allow paying tourists the opportunity to poke their heads above the Earth's atmosphere, see the blackness of space, the curve of the planet and the free-floating experience of weightlessness all in one day.

Blue Origin plans to begin filling their capsule with tourists later this year.

Both companies are also offering rides for space researchers.

The space experiments flown on Blue Origin had to be brief because of the short duration of the flight, but they were opportunities for university students and smaller companies to access space at relatively low cost. Six of the more creative projects came from the MIT Media Lab, which encourages engineering and art to come together, including an abstract sculpture experiment involving a wisdom tooth and a zero G crystalline structure that grows around it in space.

Private space flight a cheaper way to get to space

The bottom line is that the private companies are now providing access to space to anyone, from professional astronauts to high-end tourists, research institutions or artists at far lower costs than government agencies have ever been able to do. The history of space flight has been filled with aerospace contractors who worked on a "cost-plus" philosophy, that resulted in long delays and huge cost overruns.

The Apollo moon missions were accomplished with no question of cost because it was about getting to the moon within a decade, and more importantly, before the Soviet Union did it. Later, towards the end of the space shuttle program, each launch was costing over a billion dollars U.S.

Now the private space companies are developing and testing their own spacecraft under one roof and then flying them at a fraction of the cost of government. They are in it to make a profit, so efficiency is a top priority. But it is still a dangerous business.

The destruction of the SpaceX capsule is a setback similar to the Apollo 1 fire during a test on the launch pad that took the lives of three astronauts. Fortunately, no one was injured this time. Virgin Galactic also had a fatal crash of one of its vehicles early in its test program. These are reminders that with even after more than half a century of experience, space flight is still dangerous and hard. But like Apollo, lessons come from disaster, spacecraft are modified and the program goes on.

2019 is a landmark year where we celebrate the remarkable accomplishment of landing 12 highly trained test pilots on the moon 50 years ago, and enter a new era where anyone who can afford it can go to space for science, for exploration or just for the fun of it.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.