The telephone pole-sized commercial rocket that launched Monday from New Mexico had a lot more riding on it than just the high school experiments and cremated remains that were to be hurtled into space for paying customers. UP Aerospace of Connecticut heralded the maiden launch of its SpaceLoft XL rocket as the beginning of a new era of affordable public access to space.
Even though the rocket failed 40,000 ft. in the air, corkscrewing back to earth for a crash landing moments after liftoff, the event marked a milestone in the rapidly approaching future of personal space travel.
"I think we are in the early days of a new era in space that says the average person now can get access to space," says Jim Banke, vice president of the Space Foundation. "What you're seeing here is basically guys working in a quiet little hangar somewhere to put together this rocket and launch it without needing 10,000 people and the vice president of the U.S. to show up to make it happen."
Had it succeeded, the SpaceLoft XL rocket would not have been the first privately funded craft to make the trip to space without federal funding or infrastructure. Two years ago, in what space buffs call the industry's "Charles Lindbergh moment," SpaceShipOne ferried passengers to space twice within two weeks to win the $10 million X Prize which, coincidentally, was sponsored by the family of Anousheh Ansari, the Dallas high-tech entrepreneur who is currently visiting the International Space Station as a paying customer.
Research by the Space Foundation to be released later this year concludes that space has become a $180 billion industry in the U.S., of which only a small portion is attributable to NASA or military spending. The commercial share includes spending on satellite television and radio and GPS devices as well as five "spaceports" already licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration in California, Florida, Virginia and Kodiak Island and others under development around the country like the one in New Mexico.
Among the better known industry pioneers is British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson who is moving the SpaceShipOne concept forward in a company called Virgin Galactic with plans to manufacture enough similar crafts to begin commercial operations from New Mexico in a few years. And after picking up the pieces from Monday's launch, UP Aerospace has scheduled nine more flights over the next year.
"Clearly there are ways to get into space that don't require NASA astronauts and NASA hardware," says Banke. "Now it's time to turn over low-earth orbit to the commercial guys."
Once the commercial guys like Branson or UP Aerospace perfect a reliable, low-cost spacecraft, the space frontier becomes officially open for business to pursue what until recently seemed impossible: Snag an asteroid into low-earth orbit to mine its minerals. Launch solar satellites to beam down all the cheap power we can use. Build space hotels for family tourism. "Whether it means flying a rocket to an inflatable hotel in low-earth orbit, these are far-fetched, fantasy things that are out there but suddenly become a little more real when you have private entrepreneurs trying to figure out how to launch into space," says Banke.