Space Race II: The Good Ship Private Enterprise

Now that the Philae probe has fallen into a deep sleep on Comet 67P, we can turn our attention to the next stages of NASA’s space exploration programs. Up next is the planned launch of the scheduled for this coming December 4. Originally envisioned as part of the much broader constellation space exploration program with missions to the moon and from there onto Mars, the Orion crew exploration vehicle is the one part of the program that survived the NASA federal budget cutbacks during the Great Recession years.

Orion’s Expiration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) planned for December 4, 2014 will be an unmanned flight, launched via a Delta IV Heavy rocket. As you look at the embedded video, you’re sure to see some similarities with the NASA Apollo program from the 1960s. The Orion reentry capsule looks remarkably familiar as it returns to earth, slowed by a series of drag chutes before plunging into the ocean.


Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, image by CNN
Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, image by CNN


Despite criticism that the Orion is not a cutting edge design concept, it may just be the ticket to get our astronauts to the International Space Station and back home safely, particularly as relations with the Russians — with whom we’re uncomfortably dependent upon for astronauts transport at present — sink to Cold War levels. In a related development, the European Space Agency (ESA) dropped cooperation with the Russians for a jointly-developed Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) and has joined the NASA Orion project instead. ESA is building the service module for the Orion test flight EM-1; in a surprising twist, Airbus will be one of the lead contractors, which is probably an uncomfortable development for Chicago-based Boeing.


The New Space Race: Brought to You by “IPO-llionaires”

Even as NASA tests its more conservative Orion crew transportation system, it’s also been conducting a series of high-stakes competitions for contracts to build its next-generation of space transport and exploration vehicles. What we find fascinating is that founders from three wildly successful Internet software companies are fighting it out in a new space race. Let’s take a closer look at these executives from Microsoft, PayPal and Google.


Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s Space Race: Brought to You by Microsoft

Do you remember the very wide gossamer-winged Voyager aircraft that flew nonstop around the world without refueling? The designer behind this prize-winning aircraft is Burt Rutan, who later founded Scaled Composites to build spacecraft. Rutan’s goal was to win the Ansari X-Prize, whose challenge was to launch a privately-funded spacecraft into space twice within a two-week period. During the development of what Rutan called Space Ship One, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discreetly provided the funding necessary to take on the Ansari X-Prize, which they won in 2004.

Allen, who reportedly has a net worth somewhere north of $16 billion, continued his business relationship with Burt Rutan; the company built the successor Space Ship Two (and its launch aircraft White Knight Two) upon which Sir Richard Branson is developing his space tourism business, Virgin Galactic. (We covered the tragic accident of a SpaceShipTwo test flight in our article last week.)


Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin. Image by
Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin. Image by


Rutan sold Scaled Composites to Northrop Grumman and “retired” in 2011. But brilliant designers like Burt Rutan don’t stay retired long. Now he’s back in the saddle again with Paul Allen via Vulcan, Inc. (Allen’s VC investment arm) in a new venture called Stratolaunch Systems. Together, they have actively competed for NASA’s next-generation spacecraft contract. As with Scaled Composites (and their launch craft White Knight One and White Knight Two), the idea is to launch space vehicles from mid-air by carrying them up to high altitudes via transport aircraft. This time they have found two used 747-400s which they are cannibalizing for parts to build the largest wingspan aircraft ever, at 117m (385 ft)! And they contracted with Orbital Sciences (who aborted a rocket launch at the end of October, see last week’s article as well) to build a rocket designed to be launched from midair, dubbed Pegasus II.


But… the NASA Contract was Awarded to… Space X and Boeing

Time was running out. Stratolaunch Systems, who had originally partnered with Space X earlier in the competition but had parted ways midway, got very bad news this past September… NASA has awarded the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability competition (CCtCap) to Space X and Boeing who will each build, test and deploy their separate designs. Shortly thereafter, another contractor who lost the competition, Sierra Nevada Corporation, developer of the Dream Chaser space plane, announced they would protest the NASA contract award. Sierra Nevada Corporation also announced they would partner with Stratolaunch Systems. It’s not clear if how they intend to move ahead, or if this is part of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s bid protest strategy.


Elon Musk’s Space Race: Brought to You by Ebay/PayPal

As a founder of PayPal, which was purchased (and soon to be spun off again…) by online auction house eBay, Elon Musk has leveraged his new-found wealth into not one but two demanding careers: he founded the electric car company Tesla Motors and the space exploration company, dubbed Space X. Since 2012, Space X has delivered cargo under contract to NASA to the International Space Station four times — using their partially-reusable Dragon unmanned cargo spacecraft.

Space X also builds and launches the two-stage-to-orbit launch rocket, dubbed the Falcon 9, which is used to lift the Dragon into space. The next scheduled launch to resupply the ISS is currently planned for this December. According to recently released reports, Space X spent over $450 million to develop the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule. NASA contributed an additional $396 million.


What’s the Payoff?

As we mentioned above, this past September 16, NASA awarded both Space X and Boeing contracts to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). According to the terms of the contract, both Boeing and Space X will have to complete the development and certification of their respective crew spacecraft and fly them up to six times to the ISS. If successful, Boeing would receive up to $4.2 billion for its efforts. If Space X is successful, it would receive up to $2.6 billion.


Larry Page and Eric Schmidt’s Space Race: Brought to You by Google

Larry Page, co-founder of Google, and Eric Schmidt, Google CEO joined up with other notable investors, including James Cameron, Google Investor Ram Shriram, and Ross Perot, Jr. to fund the ambitiously named company Planetary Resources Inc. The company states that its long-term goal is to travel to asteroids and mine them for resources, including oxygen and hydrogen as well as precious metals such as titanium, platinum or gold. Mining and manufacturing is a fascinating topic, one we hope to cover in a future article on manufacturing in space. As ambitious as this sounds, Planetary Resources has announced a much more modest initial goal — which is to create a series of low-cost space telescopes to track asteroids as well as photograph the earth from space.

We can’t help but think that this could be an effort to further Google Maps in some way! Planetary Resources has hit the ground running with an impressive social media campaign and crowd-sourced fundraising effort. They raised $1.5 million on Kickstarter based on a promise to transport ‘selfie‘ images up in the space and photograph them with the earth in the background. They are also cleverly leveraging the publicity surrounding 3D printing by establishing a partnership with 3D Systems. The entire body of the Arkyd spacecraft is a circular fuel tank that is printed.


Astronaut Barry Wilmore shows off the first 3-D printed part in space inside the International Space Station.
Astronaut Barry Wilmore shows off the first 3-D printed part in space inside the International Space Station.


However, they won’t be the first 3D printed part in space as NASA and start-up partner “Made in Space” have already beat them to the punch. Astronaut Barry Wilmore showed off the first 3-D printed part in space yesterday. The idea behind the program is to be able to manufacture any crucial replacement parts while on-board the International Space Station.

We’ll have more on this topic in a future article as we look at the potential for ‘manufacturing in space‘.


We Believe in Spaceship Private Enterprise

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