We are in the midst of a modern space race. Where once the two most powerful empires in the world vie to get to the moon first, we now have companies led by billionaire barons — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — with a future full of exo-planetary tourism. In 2021, the heads of these private companies finally delivered on their countless promises by successfully launching civilians, astronauts and, in two cases, themselves to the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX continues to lead the burgeoning private space industry from the front. In January, the company successfully launched its first “rideshare mission” aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, launching 133 microsatellites into orbit along with 10 of its own Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s Starlink ISP service, which now serves more than 10,000 customers, has launched some 1,475 of the microsats into orbit (with a total of 42,000 planned, with global coverage by September), despite fierce protests. of astronomers fearing their presence will blind telescopes on the ground.
SpaceX’s efforts to get its Starship prototype off the ground haven’t been nearly as successful as Starlink, mind you. The 100-passenger spacecraft, which was designed to fulfill CEO Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars and presumably calling himself God Emperor of the Red Planet (or something similar), spectacularly exploded on the launch pad after a test flight at high altitude in March.
A further test of the SN11 Starship prototype later that month did not even return to the landing pad. However, SN15, which launched in May, managed to land whole. The company is currently working on a plan to launch a Starship prototype into orbit, although there is currently no timetable for that launch — it was originally scheduled for July and then moved to November, subject to approval. from the regulatory authorities, and is now scheduled for January.
But those failed tests have done little to slow down SpaceX’s role over its competition. In February, NASA awarded SpaceX a $331.8 million contract to launch its Gateway station into orbit around the moon by 2024. And in April, NASA gave the company a $2.9 billion contract to take its Artemis lunar lander to the moon.
Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin responded to the Artemis contract by first protesting the “fundamentally unfair” decision with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which delayed progress on the project until July, when the GAO dismissed the claims, though Bezos offered NASA $2 billion to award them the contract instead.
“We firmly believe that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO was unable to address them due to their limited jurisdiction,” the company said after the GAO’s announcement.
Still seething with the GAO’s reprimand, Bezos then filed suit against NASA in the Federal Claims Court, essentially in an attempt to [its] way to the moon,” Musk said. Blue Origin claimed this was done “in an effort to correct the flaws in the acquisition process in NASA’s Human Landing System,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told Engadget in August. “We’re there firmly believe that the issues identified in this tender and its results must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition and ensure a safe return to the moon for America.” Blue Origin ultimately lost that lawsuit, too.
And that’s when a prestige competition between the two richest men on Earth degenerated into a high school feud with SpaceX accusing Amazon of deliberately delaying proposals for its Starlink service, while Amazon’s allegations that Musk and SpaceX “not following the rules”.
“Whether launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a shelter order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies make it clear to them: Rules are for other people, and those who insist or even ask for compliance deserve ridicule and ad hominem attacks,” Amazon’s FCC filing reads.
This year, SpaceX not only became the first private company to successfully transport astronauts to the ISS, but also offered its first civilian orbital flight with the launch of the Inspiration4 mission in September. A quartet of amateur astronauts orbited Earth in a Dragon Capsule for three days before returning safely. And while Musk has not yet left the planet’s atmosphere aboard a rocket designed by his company, he has reportedly made a $10,000 deposit for a trip aboard a future Virgin Galactic flight.
One notch that Bezos has on his belt that Musk doesn’t is the fact that he actually flew aboard his own spacecraft. After successful test flights of Blue Origin’s upgraded New Shepard in both January and April, Jeff Bezos and his brother — along with 18-year-old Oliver Daemen (whose parents spent $28 million for the honour) and 84-year-old Wally Funk — teamed up with successfully crossed the Karman line on July 20. Blue Origin followed up on that feat in October when it launched William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, into space. During that flight, Shatner, who is 90, named 84-year-old Funk as the oldest person to have gone to space. A way to capture the last highlights of the life of an old woman, Captain Kirk.
Looking ahead, Blue Origin is working on a spacecraft capable of handling a nuclear thermal propulsion system (NTP) for DARPA — and pitting itself against Lockheed Martin to successfully demonstrate it beyond low Earth orbit by 2025. . The company also announced in late October that it hopes to build and deploy a commercial space station called Orbital Reef by the second half of this decade — think the ISS but with more intrusive advertising. NASA has since awarded the project a Space Act Agreement, along with funding through the design phase, as part of the Commercial LEO Development program.
Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, started its 2021 in a holding pattern. The company’s SpaceShip II test in late December — the first major flight from the Spaceport America site in New Mexico — ended abruptly after the ship’s engine failed to ignite. Another repeat test scheduled for February was also postponed to May after the company chose to carry out additional “technical checks”.
While these aren’t major setbacks in the same vein as an exploding StarShip, VG’s ongoing delays serve the company’s goal of pushing back commercial space tourism flights through at least 2022. However, they had no impact on Virgin Galactic’s reveal of SpaceShip III in March.
In May, VG’s perseverance paid off when SpaceShip II successfully completed its rocket-powered test flight, hurling a few pilots and a cargo hold full of NASA experiments to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The following month, Virgin Galactic received approval from the FAA to begin commercial operations, becoming the first company to receive approval from the airline industry. With the FAA’s blessing firmly in hand, Virgin Galactic CEO Sir Richard Branson decided to blast off into space the following month — disregarding Blue Origin’s taunts. On July 11, Branson and his crew did just that—well, technically.
Buoyed by the success of their boss’s flight, Virgin Galactic began offering tickets to would-be space tourists for the low, discounted price of $450,000. Since the beginning of November, more than 100 tickets have been sold.
Branson’s flight was not flawless, however, and that sparked anger at the FAA. During the landing of SpaceShip II, the spacecraft “deviated from air traffic control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America,” according to the FAA. In a subsequent statement from the company, Virgin disagreed with the FAA’s characterization.
“When the vehicle encountered high-altitude winds that altered its trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it stayed within mission parameters,” the company argued. “Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions, exactly as they had been trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flight’s final trajectory differed from our original plan, it was a controlled and deliberate flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew endangered by this change of course.” A brief investigation by the FAA eventually gave the company permission to resume flight testing.
Despite these advances in private space systems, don’t expect the space tourism industry to take off for at least the beginning of the next decade. If Virgin Galactic’s recent price hike from $250,000 to $450,000 per ticket is any indication, very few people will be able to afford such a trip in the foreseeable future. So while two of the world’s richest men have had the honor of escaping our gravity for a good while, don’t think you’re going to get your chance anytime soon – unless you can win it like a Golden Ticket like Keisha S did.
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