The Year’s Most Audacious Private Space Exploration Plans
Article by ADAM MANN 12.27.12 Photo: NASA. Coutesy of WIRED.com
It has been a remarkable and exciting year for commercial spaceflight companies.
Private asteroid mining! Commercial trips to the moon! Mars settlements! We barely had time to catch our breath from the last secret organization announcement when suddenly some other team was cropping up and declaring a bold new adventure in space.
“You had the unveiling of these really audacious business plans that at first blush you would dismiss as impossible,” said journalist and aerospace analyst Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of the space-industry-watching The Space Review. “But when you look at both the technical and financial pedigree of the people backing these systems, you step back and say, ‘Well, maybe there’s something here.’”
Many of these new companies have experts at their helms, founded or run by former NASA engineers and veterans of the spaceflight community. Others showed off their deep entrepreneurial pockets and touted the potential profits to be made in space.
So how did 2012 turn into the year of private space? Perhaps the most important factor was the trailblazing success of SpaceX, a commercial rocket business started by entrepreneur and PayPal founder Elon Musk. This year, the company conducted two launches to the International Space Station using their Falcon 9 vehicle, with the second mission bringing supplies and helping prove that SpaceX was on the path to ferrying astronauts.
The company is already planning their next rocket, the enormous Falcon Heavy, for launch in 2013 and recently won important contracts with the U.S. military to deliver hardware to space. With all these notches on his space belt, Musk is no doubt already eyeing the perfect ridge for his retirement home on Mars.
Contributing influences to 2012’s commercial space focus include an aimless NASA. Though it saw spectacular successes such as the Mars Curiosity rover landing, the agency is still wrestling with frozen budgets and a deeply divided Congress that disagrees on its overarching mission. Alongside NASA’s existential crisis was the aftermath of the second dot-com boom, which created a crop of young, sci-fi-crazy tycoons.
“When you give these Silicon Valley guys a billion dollars,” said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of Harvard, who tracks rocket launches, “Their first thought is ‘Cool, now I can have my own space program.’”
Just in case you are having trouble telling the Planetary Resources apart from the Golden Spikes, Wired presents a gallery of the year's most impressive, daring, and wild business plans from commercial companies. We also talked to a small handful of spaceflight experts to get their take on which of the big dreams will pan out and which will burn out.
“I don’t expect them all to succeed, but I don’t expect them all to fail,” said space lawyer Michael Listner, founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions. Taken together, the companies’ ambitions underscore just how much times have changed. “About 10 years ago, if you presented one of these plans, people would have looked at you like you’re crazy. Now people can say, well it’s a little crazy, but considering what’s been done, it might be possible.”