Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a landmark year for the commercial space industry. SpaceX became the first company ever to send humans to space aboard a privately owned spacecraft. The U.S. government continued to work closely with startups and space businesses to put humans back on the Moon. And, helped by governments declaring them “essential businesses” amid the pandemic, a pack of young space companies kept working to create new rockets or satellite services.
But 2021 is expected to be even bigger for the burgeoning industry as reigning giants such as SpaceX continue to pursue futuristic technologies — from Mars rockets to space-based internet service and extraterrestrial tourism.
Here’s a look at what the private sector has planned in space next year.
ASTRONAUTS FLY COMMERCIAL
SpaceX made history when its Crew Dragon spacecraft proved it can ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the first time in SpaceX’s 18-year history that the company put humans in space. It was also the climax of a decade-long partnership with NASA to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States.
SpaceX is expected to make those trips routine. Another group of astronauts is expected to take flight aboard a Crew Dragon in Spring 2021, and yet another Crew Dragon flight could launch next Fall.
The ability to fly its own astronauts after spending nearly a decade relying on Russian spacecraft to put U.S. astronauts in space is a huge deal for NASA. The space agency says it’ll now be able to keep the space station fully staffed, allowing a dramatic boost in the amount of research that astronauts are able to conduct aboard the ISS.
Next year, Boeing could also add another vehicle to the United States’ arsenal of human-worthy spacecraft. The company is planning to conduct the first crewed flight of its Starliner vehicle, which is being developed under the same NASA program as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Boeing’s Starliner, which looks similar to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, will first need to re-do a botched flight test that the company tried to carry out one year ago. Boeing says it’s targeting March 29 for a second attempt, and — if all goes well — Starliner’s first crewed launch could kick off a few months later.
Both Boeing and SpaceX’s spacecraft are privately owned, per the terms of the development deal they signed with NASA, which means both companies will have the option to sell seats aboard their spacecraft to anyone who can afford the roughly US$50 million per-seat price tag.
SpaceX has already signed a deal with Axiom, a startup founded by former NASA Administrator Michael Suffredini, to take a group of “private astronauts” to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon in the second half of 2021.
Axiom has confirmed two of the crew members that will be on that flight: Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three Space Shuttle missions who will fly as a private citizen, and Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot and wealthy investor who is reportedly funding his own trip.
SUBORBITAL JOY RIDES
Two billionaire-backed ventures — Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin — are developing small rocket-powered vehicles with the goal of sending wealthy thrill-seekers on brief trips into the upper atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic, which went public via a reversed merger in 2019, has moved into its luxurious new spaceport in New Mexico and is preparing to open for business as soon as next year. Branson is planning to be among the first passengers on board the supersonic space plane that the company has spent the past two decades building and testing. A recent test flight of that vehicle was cut short due to an engine issue, but Virgin Galactic is still hoping to finish its final tests within the next few months.
Blue Origin, which developed a fully autonomous rocket and capsule that takes off vertically from a launch pad, could also open for business next year. The company has tested its technology at a remote site in West Texas 13 times and spent years showing off the spacecraft’s large windows and spacious cabin.
Blue Origin, however, has not yet announced the price of tickets or when it plans to start selling them.
Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, has sold more than 600 tickets priced between $200,000 and $250,000. And the company plans to reopen ticket sales soon, though executives have warned that prices will go up.
ULA GOES TO THE MOON, BEZOS’S ORBITAL ROCKET TAKES FLIGHT
In the rocket launch business, SpaceX may be facing stiffer competition than ever next year. Two companies — United Launch Alliance, a joint Lockheed Martin-Boeing venture, and Blue Origin — are planning to introduce two massive new launch vehicles that aim to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon rockets on launch power and price.
Blue Origin’s towering New Glenn rocket — which is roughly five times taller than the company’s space tourism rocket — is expected to conduct its inaugural launch next year after years of development.
ULA’s rocket, called the Vulcan Centaur, is expected to kick off with a bang: It’s first-ever mission will be to deliver a lunar lander to the moon sometime next year. That rover, built by a startup called Astrobotic, will deliver research cargo to the lunar surface on behalf of NASA.
Blue Origin’s, ULA’s and SpaceX’s hulking rockets are expected to battle it out for lucrative government launch contracts for years to come. The United States military, for example, recently selected SpaceX and ULA for nearly a billion dollars with of contracts. Blue Origin lost out on that round, but it’s expected to continue vying for future missions.
For years, a group of young companies have hoped to develop small rockets — a fraction of the size of SpaceX’s Falcon rockets — that can cheaply launch new satellites into space on a regular bases. This could open up new business opportunities, according to entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley investors.
Rocket Lab is the only one of those companies to actually put a rocket in space so far, and it has launched more than a dozen successful missions in the past couple of years.
But 2021 may be the year that new players finally enter the scene.
Astra, based in Alameda, California, has already conducted two test launches and is aiming to put its first rocket into orbit next year. Los Angeles-based Relativity, which is working to 3D print its rockets, is aiming for its inaugural launch next Fall. And Texas-based Firefly may attempt to put its 95-foot-tall Alpha rocket on a launch pad within the next few months.
FUNDING THE FUTURE
It’s not clear how many small rocket launch vehicles the business sector actually needs. But more than 100 startups are vying to join the ranks of Rocket Lab — and that is definitely too many, Ann Kim, the managing director of frontier technology at Silicon Valley Bank, told CNN Business.
2021 could be a year that many of those companies begin to merge or go out of business.
That doesn’t mean, however, that venture capital investors are no longer interested in backing space-focused startups, Kim said. Investors have so far poured more than $166 billion into 1,128 different space startups involved in key aspects of the industry, from launching rockets to crunching data collected by satellites, according to data collected by Space Capital, the analysis arm of the investment group Space Angels.
Venture capital funds have tens of billions more to deploy in 2021, according to Kim.
But investors will likely be putting their cash into more data and software-focused companies, rather than into ventures hoping to break into the costly and risky hardware business. At this point, the industry has picked its frontrunners for who investors believe will have viable rocket and satellite businesses, Kim said.
SPACEX: SSTARSHIP AND STARLINK
SpaceX, the poster child of the commercial space era, has two major projects that are likely to see plenty of action in 2021: Starship — a massive rocket that CEO Elon Musk hopes will put humans on Mars — and Starlink, a swarm of satellites in low-Earth orbit that SpaceX plans to use to beam the internet into homes from space.
SpaceX has already deployed about 1,000 satellites to get its Starlink network running, and the company will continue to add more as it finishes a beta testing program. It could become commercially available early next year.
Starship, the Mars rocket, is still in its very early stages of development. But SpaceX has managed to garner plenty of public interest in the development process. The company has constructed several large, steel rocket bodies and has been putting them on a launch pad to conduct increasingly higher test flights.
Musk, who founded SpaceX with the goal of colonizing Mars, promises to keep that action going well into 2021.
First private space crew paying $55 million each to fly to station – Gulf News
Cape Canaveral, Florida: The first private space station crew was introduced Tuesday: Three men who are each paying $55 million to fly on a SpaceX rocket.
They’ll be led by a former NASA astronaut now working for Axiom Space, the Houston company that arranged the trip for next January.
“This is the first private flight to the International Space Station. It’s never been done before,” said Axiom’s chief executive and president Mike Suffredini, a former space station program manager for NASA.
While mission commander Michael Lopez-Alegria is well known in space circles, “the other three guys are just people who want to be able to go to space, and we’re providing that opportunity,” Suffredini told The Associated Press.
The first crew will spend eight days at the space station, and will take one or two days to get there aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule following liftoff from Cape Canaveral.
Russia has been in the off-the-planet tourism business for years, selling rides to the International Space Station since 2001. Other space companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plan to take paying customers on up-and-down flights lasting just minutes. These trips _ much more affordable with seats going for hundreds of thousands versus millions _ could kick off this year.
Axiom’s first customers include Larry Connor, a real estate and tech entrepreneur from Dayton, Ohio, Canadian financier Mark Pathy and Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe, a close friend of Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003.
“These guys are all very involved and doing it for kind of for the betterment of their communities and countries, and so we couldn’t be happier with this makeup of the first crew because of their drive and their interest,” Suffredini said.
Each of these first paying customers intends to perform science research in orbit, he said, along with educational outreach.
Lopez-Alegria, a former space station resident and spacewalking leader, called the group a “collection of pioneers.”
Tom Cruise was mentioned last year as a potential crew member” NASA top officials confirmed he was interested in filming a movie at the space station. There was no word Tuesday on whether Cruise will catch the next Axiom flight. Suffredini declined to comment.
Each of the private astronauts had to pass medical tests and will get 15 weeks of training, according to Suffredini. The 70-year-old Connor will become the second-oldest person to fly in space, after John Glenn’s shuttle flight in 1998 at age 77. He’ll also serve under Lopez-Alegria as the capsule pilot.
Axiom plans about two private missions a year to the space station. It also is working to launch its own live-in compartments to the station beginning in 2024. This section would be detached from the station once it’s retired by NASA and the international partners, and become its own private outpost.
Eytan Stibbe among Axiom's first private crew to visit space station – Space in Africa
The founding director of Vital Capital Fund, Eytan Stibbe, is one of the four people that will be going on the first-ever entirely private mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Stibbe has been investing in Africa for the past 26 years.
Axiom Space, an American aerospace manufacturer and orbital spaceflight service provider, announced the private crew on Tuesday. Joining Stibbe on the proposed Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) are former astronaut of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Axiom’s vice president Michael López-Alegría; American entrepreneur and non-profit activist investor Larry Connor; and Canadian investor and philanthropist Mark Pathy.
Both Pathy and Stibbe will fly as the mission specialists, while López-Alegría will fly as commander and Connor will fly as the pilot. Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will serve as Ax-1’s backup commander and John Shoffner of Knoxville is the backup pilot.
The Ax-1 is expected to launch as soon as January 2022, using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Axiom said Ax-1 is its first “precursor” private astronaut missions to the ISS—subject to approval from NASA and its international partners. It is also working NASA are working on the final approval for a formal Basic Ordering Agreement (BOA) to enable private astronaut missions, with further discussions underway to agree on and authorise the Ax-1 mission profile.
The Ax-1 mission, which is to a Low Earth Orbit destination (LEO), would allow the four-man crew to carry out research and philanthropic projects for eight days. According to NASA’s 2019 pricing policy on private astronaut flights to the ISS, each night costs $35,000 per person. This cost includes $11,250 to use life support system and toilet, $22,500 for other necessary supplies like food, air, and medical supplies.
Each member of the first private crew, however, is paying $55 million. This ticket price includes “any and all necessary costs”, an Axiom spokesperson told The Verge.
“We sought to put together a crew for this historic mission that had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of the people on Earth, and I’m glad to say we’ve done that with this group”, Axiom Space President and CEO Michael Suffredini said. “This is just the first of several Axiom Space crews whose private missions to the International Space Station will truly inaugurate expansive future for humans in space—and make a meaningful difference in the world”.
Stibbe will be the second Israeli to launch into space, following his friend Ilan Ramon who died on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. At age 63, Stibbe will be the third oldest person to enter orbit.
According to the statement by Axiom, Stibbe plans to conduct scientific experiments of Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs coordinated by the Ramon Foundation and the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology. He will also undertake educational activities from orbit to inspire Israeli children, youth, and educators.
While Stibbe has over 26 years of investing in Africa, Vital Capital was launched in 2011 as a $350 million impact investment, private equity fund focused on sub-Saharan Africa. The portfolio companies of Vital Capital include Aldeia Nova, an agro-industrial company, Kora Housing, Luanda Medical Centre, Vital Tomosi’s Dairy, WaterHealth International, Capital Water, Focal Energy, Prabon Greenfields, Water for All, Sumbe-Gabela-Waku-Kungo (SWGK), 8 Miles, and Vital Capital Environment. Through investment in these companies, Vital Capital has delivered essential development impact to millions of individuals in low- and middle-income communities.
Stibbe is a board member of the Centre for African Studies at Ben-Gurion University and other non-governmental organisations dedicated to education, art and culture.
Pathy will be the 11th Canadian astronaut going into the orbit. He is collaborating with the Canadian Space Agency as well as the Montreal Children’s Hospital, who are helping to identify health-related research projects that could be undertaken during the mission.
Connor will collaborate with Mayo Clinic and Cleaveland Clinic on research projects. He also intends to provide instructional lessons to students at Dayton Early College Academic in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
“This collection of pioneers—the first space crew of its kind—represents a defining moment in humanity’s eternal pursuit of exploration and progress”, López-Alegría said. “I know from firsthand experience that what humans encounter in space is profound and propels them to make more meaningful contributions on returning to Earth. And as much as any astronauts who have come before them, the members of this crew have accomplished the sorts of things in life that equip them to accept that responsibility, act on that revelation, and make a truly global impact”.
SpaceX launches 143 spacecraft, a record for a single launch – SatelliteProME.com
The rocket ferried 133 commercial and government spacecraft, as well as 10 Starlink satellites.
SpaceX has launched a batch of 143 spacecraft into space under the company’s new cost-cutting SmallSat Rideshare Programme, breaking the record for the most satellites deployed on a single mission. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 10 a.m. EST.
A collection of 143 satellites as part of SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission over the experienced launcher, is called Transporter-1.
The rocket ferried 133 commercial and government spacecraft. SpaceX, acting like a cosmic carpool, dispatched its own 10 satellites into space Starlink Internet Satellites. Flat-panelled Starlink satellites are expected to be deposited in a unique polar orbit – a first for the broadband fleet, which will serve customers in Alaska and other polar regions.
The launch carried payloads for Planet, Swarm Technologies, Kepler Communications, Spire, Capella Space, ICEYE, NASA, and a host of other customers from 11 countries. The payloads ranged in size from CubeSats to microsatellites weighing several hundred pounds.
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