Private companies compete for space program prizes

In May 1996, Dr. Peter Diamandis announced a prize of $10,000,000 for the first private organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space two times in two weeks. The second man on the moon, Dr. Buzz Aldrin, said, “I think the X Prize should be viewed as the beginning of one giant leap…”. In July 2002, the Virgin team collaborated with Mojave Aerospace Ventures (owned by Paul Allen) to build a commercial version of SpaceShipOne if they win the Ansari X prize.

On October 4, 2004, the ten million dollar X Prize was awarded to Scaled Composites because their spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, met the specified requirements. The spacecraft held three people and was capable of going 62 miles above the Earth. Scaled Composites was founded in 1982 by Burt Rutan. The company tests about one new space vehicle every year.

SpaceShipOne uses three flight control systems: manual subsonic, electric supersonic and cold gas reaction control system (RCS). Its rocket motor is a liquid nitrous oxide rubber fuel hybrid propulsion system. The avionics onboard allow the pilot to manually fly the space vehicle for re-entry.

The White Knight space vehicle’s first flight was on August 1, 2002. It was also developed by Scaled Composites. It is a manned twin turbojet high altitude research space vehicle. It is designed to flight qualify all the spacecraft systems. Astronauts in training can practice spaceflight maneuvers such as boost, approach, and landing. The White Knight spacecraft also has capabilities for reconnaissance, surveillance, atmospheric research, data relay, telecommunications, imaging and booster launch for micro satellites.

In 2012, SpaceX was the first privately owned spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station on a supply mission with the Dragon capsule. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, launched a commercial communications satellite into orbit around the Earth on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. It was the third attempt. SpaceX is planning on sending manned missions to the moon and the planet Mars. 

The Sierra Nevada Corporation builds the spacecraft actuators that power the Mars rovers. Their Spacecraft Systems capability supplies small satellites for commercial, civil, and military space missions. The Propulsion Systems supplies low cost propulsion solutions for space vehicles, satellites, and small to medium launch vehicle propulsion systems. The Space Explorations System is working on a safe and inexpensive commercial crew transportation service to and from low orbit and the International Space Station.

Blue Origin is developing a spacecraft called New Shepard that will fly private astronauts into low orbit around the Earth. It will also give researchers the opportunity to fly their experiments into space. They are also developing a module similar to New Shepard that will be reusable.

XCOR Aerospace offers primary and secondary payload capabilities that can be purchased by private companies. It offers in-cockpit and external experiments, test pilot training, astronaut training, upper atmospheric sampling and personal spaceflight. The latter is space tourism, but only private companies can buy the seats.

Penn State’s Lunar Lion might be the first manned commercial spacecraft to fly to the moon. It has entered the largest international incentive based prize named the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The prize will be awarded to the first commercial company to land a spacecraft on the moon and move it at least 500 meters. They have paid the refundable launch reservation fee and plan on launching in July 2015. Their budget is 60 million dollars and the base prize is 40 million dollars. But there are several optional prizes for feats like surviving the night on the moon in the spacecraft, exploring lunar artifacts, and terrestrial or in space milestones. It must all be done by December 31, 2015.