According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a high-tech EU company named Astrium plans to partner with the American firm Alliant Techsystems to develop a new “low-cost” rocket booster that could launch future space tourists into orbit.
Astrium is the primary aerospace manufacturer of the highly successful commercial booster rocket Ariane used to launch satellite payloads into orbit. The EU company is a subsidiary of the defense company leviathan EADS; Alliant Techsystems makes space shuttles.
Once the exclusive domain of the two superpowers—the U.s. and USSR—the space race has transmogrified into a commercial race between private firms eager to cash in on the potential billions to be made “out there.”
The seeds of the space race began almost 70 years ago when Nazi Germany developed the infamous V-2 rocket that reached the fringe of space.
After the war, the father of German rocketry, Werner von Braun, helped steer a fledgling American space agency from a string of embarrassing launch failures to become the first nation ever to land men on the Moon.
Dr. von Braun’s grand vision, outlined in the biographical film, “I Aim at the Stars,” saw giant wheel-shaped space stations orbiting Earth, the establishment of Lunar colonies and manned exploration of Mars—all before the mid-1980s.
None of it was to be as wars, politics and social re-engineering plans occulted the space scientist’s bold dreams.
Now, as NASA’s budget has been trimmed and its Lunar and Mars exploration programs have been axed by the Obama administration, it will soon retire the space shuttle and rely on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS).
The future of space
Despite the fact that NASA has been downsized, the real exploitation of space is set to begin by several dozen companies spread out across the world.
Space tourism-something the Russians jumped on some years ago—just scratches the surface of the opportunities waiting in Earth orbit and beyond. Orbiting pharmeceutical labs, solar power stations and near-Earth asteroid mining are just a few industries that will make the 21st Century the “Age of the Trillionaires.”
Astrium and Alliant are designing a 300-foot “Liberty” launcher to ferry passengers and cargo into orbit for a measly $180 million. That figure represents a 40 percent reduction of the current cost.
While these two companies seek some funding from NASA, other private space companies are lifting themselves into orbit by their bootstraps.
Dawn of the space entrepreneurs
Robert T. Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace made his billions with a low-cost hotel chain, Budget Suites of America. Now he wants to create the same thing in space.
Showing off his operations located in North Las Vegas he told a New York Times reporter, “Every astronaut we have come in here just says, ‘Wow.’ They can’t believe the size of this thing.”
His company has already launched to test modules into orbit with NASA’s help. And Bigelow is now working with aerospace giant Boeing on the advanced technology of the modular space hotel.
The “thing” Bigelow referred to is a full-size space station mock-up. He is watching other entrepreneurs—like Astrium and Alliant and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic—as they move forward with the technology to achieve Earth orbit.
Bigelow thinks once paying passengers get into space they might like to spend some time up there in something other than a stuffy spaceship. He thinks many would like to stay at his space station hotel.
Others think so too. The Las Vegas hotel magnate believes that Space Exploration Technologies Corporation will get people into space using its Falcon 9 rockets for about $20 million.
After all, the view will be spectacular, he argues.
So far, Bigelow’s invested nearly $180 million of his own capital into the project and says he’ll throw in another $320 million more if needed. He expects a return on investment to be measured in the billions.
His first space hotel is scheduled to be ready by 2014. The price of a stay will be less than half the $50 million the Russians are currently charging to take tourists to the ISS.
Bigelow and Branson and the rest don’t see the Astrium-Alliant partnership as competition, but rather as expanding resources that will benefit all private firms racing to develop a brand new industry.
The Astrium-Alliant “low-cost commercial launcher” is expected to become operational by 2013.