back to article From launch to orbit: The new commercial space pioneers

We all know that many 20th century prophecies of life in the new millennium never came to pass. Among them were flying cars, meals-in-a-pill and annihilation by Skynet, to name but a few. However, taking the crown of unfulfilled expectations has to be private spaceflight for business or pleasure. With all the rapid space tech …


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  1. JDX Gold badge

    Mars One

    "Mars One is essentially an interplanetary mashup of X-Factor and Big Brother, with candidates being selected by web vid audiences and the whole mission being broadcast live 24/7."

    No it isn't (my housemate is an applicant so I have a good source). While it does plan to be relaity TV, that's actually in this case simply showing 'real reality' on TV, not people acting like idiots for the camera. It's designed as a very serious colonisation mission - nobody would get to go purely on the public vote, the public would only influence which of the pre-screened people get to go on the arduous and very thorough training program, teaching them everything from medical skills to toilet management.

    I personally don't think it's going to get anywhere, but please don't believe the sound-bites about this being "big brother in space" with all the negative connotations this implies. The people applying are physicists, nerds, etc, not loudly gay morons.

    1. Grave

      Re: Mars One

      i guess it will be more of a documentary

      now if they drop all people who applied and are unfit for following reasons, he might have a good chance if he doesn't fit into one of those groups :)

      200 000 initial applications

      • 1st stage filter, remove attention seekers -90% = 20 000 viable applications
      • 2nd stage filter, remove adrenaline junkies -90% = 2 000 viable applications
      • 3rd stage filter, remove extrovert people -90% = 200 viable applications
      • 4th stage filter, remove people too old/young -50% = 100 viable applications
      • 5th stage filter, remove people below specific IQ threshold -50% = 50 viable applications

      and so on using fine example of good ol' internet "statistics" :)

      1. NomNomNom

        Re: Mars One

        I would have thought your 5th stage filter was redundant

  2. James 51 Silver badge

    It seems like lots of companies have different pieces of the puzzle e.g. one has the right material, another has better engines etc etc. It might take a round of consolidation to bring them together to get something that works and works well.

    1. Don Jefe

      Space exploration/travel has kind of always been that way. No single entiry has all the pieces of the pie. The Russians and the Chinese have come the closest because the structure of their States made/makes it much easier to 'reallocate' the needed resources.

      In the US and Europe their space programs have always been completely dependent on the private sector. The problem, and a source of much of the expense, has been that Western State driven agencies (NASA/ESA) have only been able (for a bunch of reasons) to really focus on one major program at a time. This has resulted in swarms of companies in the private sector springing up to service that single project and their investments have led them to lobby to keep those programs 'alive' which sucks the money away from the main agency. One of our clients in Houston, TX is still cranking out parts for a program that will never leave Earth, but with his contributions and a little help from his Senator he keeps his contract. There's a lot of those stories.

      An automotive industry type setup seems ideal for privatizing space. The car companies don't manufacture most of the subsystems in cars, those are made in an enormous supply chain that, although huge as a whole, is made of mostly small manufacturers that can be quickly be realigned for new products and there's always room for new players.

      I'm afraid a mass consolidation will result in a NASA lock-in situation whereas an automobile industry type setup has lots of opportunities both domestically and internationally for all parties involved.

      1. annodomini2

        You'll end up with an Aerospace setup, 2 or 3 big players and a few smaller startups aiming to take a slice.

        Simply because of the shared nature of the businesses.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        "I'm afraid a mass consolidation will result in a NASA lock-in situation whereas an automobile industry type setup has lots of opportunities both domestically and internationally for all parties involved."

        Not while the US continues their insane ITAR policy.

        Foreign customers can't buy US stuff (or even get answers to questions about US stuff) without going through the State Dept. It's called a "Technical interchange meeting," or more accurately a stop-any-furriner-knowing-anything-they-don't-need-to meeting.

        An attitude which has lost US space businesses, many of which were pretty small niche outfits to either dump the space parts of their business (no foreign orders meant not enough production) or shut down altogether.

        Here's the thing. This "superiority" that the ITAR laws were meant to protect has simply failed. The world has simply bypassed US suppliers and gone on building payloads and vehicles regardless. It has not stopped "proliferation," it has encouraged it.

  3. Dave 126 Silver badge

    I've just halfway through reading a Sci-Fi novel, Encounter with Tiber, by some blokes called Buzz Aldrin* and John Barnes**. Published in 1996, it starts off with a problem with the Space Shuttle, and lays out how private industry develops better launch vehicles through the beginning of the 21st century- even linking it to some Silicon Valley types.

    It's a fair read, though every so often a paragraph or character is used to explain the Doppler effect or a Lagrange point. It would probably appeal to fans of Arthur C Clarke.

    *Yes, the astronaut

    **No, not the footballer

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      >"featuring the Burt Rutan-designed, Scaled Composites-built SpaceShipTwo and its launch counterpart, "

      Buzz Aldrin's above novel features a Space Tourism entrepreneur who "even gets Burt Rutan out of retirement" to design a launch system. As pictured in the novel's line-art illustrations, it resembles the Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo.

  4. Paul_Murphy

    Michael Laine and Liftport

    Space Elevator.

    I am surprised that Liftport ( are not mentioned - Ok they don't have rockets but if they are successful then their legacy is likely to be more far-reaching.

    1. James 51 Silver badge

      Re: Michael Laine and Liftport

      Agreed but the challenges they face are that much greater.

  5. James Hughes 1

    No mention of Grasshopper

    An impressive VTVL thingy from SpaceX.

  6. Rustident Spaceniak

    Armadillo out, Strato in

    It appears - from a note published by El Reg on 12 August, no less - that Armadillo Aerospace have all but given up business, due to lack of funding from Mr Carmack. On the other hand, Stratolaunch, another ambitions upstart on a scale almost comparable to that of SpaceX, appear to be actually cutting metal on their carrier plane for a rather large, solid-fuelle launch rocket. If names and technical progress are anything to go by, then that company, with backing from types like Paul Allen behind it (and with Scaled as a partner), while being late to the party, seems to be making quite a showing.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Armadillo out, Strato in

      Yeah, unfortunately Mr. Carmack ran out of money. Going into space is not only very expensive, you've got to have partners as well as significant political and commercial leverage to clear all the hurdles involved.

      No space capable government is truly keen on 'losing control' of space, but they know they can't keep control forever. They're willing to share, but it is going to cost a lot in terms of money and 'non-monetary assistance'. Armadillo never had any chance in those regards.

  7. Anonymous John

    You haven't mentioned Dennis Tito's plan to send a couple round Mars in 2018. Something that surely has to go ahead.

  8. Annihilator

    Lester missing?

    Does LOHAN not make this list?

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Guess they did not email REL for a comment.

    Otherwise they'd know Reaction Engines state that up to now REL has been at least 75% privately funded.

    They have no desire to become a govt programme like Concorde.

    There core staff have been there, and they never want to repeat that experience.

  10. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    And Bigelow information about a factor of 1000x out.

    It's $million not $billion

    V. Poor.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      and while picking nits...

      similarities with the Space Shuttle include Dream Chaser’s ablative thermal protection system

      The shuttle didn't have an ablative TPS, it had those fabulous & fabulously fragile insulating tiles. Googling "dream chaser tps" inevitably hits Wikipedia, with the helpful quote:

      Its thermal protection system (TPS) is an ablative tile created by NASA's Ames center that would be replaced as a large group rather than tile by tile, and would only need to be replaced after several flights

      So the similarity is the word "tile"? In which case I'll tell the estate agent to list my bathroom as "as used by asstronauts". And then hopefully buyers won't remember "2001":

  11. Kharkov

    There's two realistic companies here and the rest... are dreaming

    SpaceX has a plan & cash flow to finance it.

    REL has a plan & cash flow to finance it.

    Both offer superior products at remarkably low per-use prices which are A: very attractive & B: set to revolutionise the market as they blow the competition away.

    The other guys in the article? They don't have either the cash flow or a product that operates cheaply enough.

    For example, Dream Chaser, which is a technically workable idea, is going to launch on Atlas V's for approximately 240 million dollars a shot.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: There's two realistic companies here and the rest... are dreaming

      That's a bit harsh.

      VG is very serious. While not currently orbital they took something like 5000 deposits for their flights on their company launch day. They've spent 10 (if not 100s) of $m on SS2/WK2 and Virgin does not put that kind of cash on the table without a strong business case.

      My impression (based on Branson's public comments) is VG would like nothing better than offering a full orbital upgrade to their SS2 package and Skylon would fit very well in that slot.

      Masten and Xcor have been around for decades. Xcor is in fact the most similar in background (and fondness for publicity) to REL. Both have been very pragmatic.

      BTW in principal Xcors low cost piston pumps and "Nonburnite" composite should be major enablers of low cost RLV design. While buying parts off a competitor sounds risky I'm surprised more people have not looked at that approach.

  12. That Awful Puppy
    Thumb Up

    Godspeed ...

    ... to all of them.

    Except to the reality TV project. Because you just now it's going to end in punters paying extra to watch shower scenes from beyond the Moon's orbit.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Godspeed ...

      "Except to the reality TV project. Because you just now it's going to end in punters paying extra to watch shower scenes from beyond the Moon's orbit."

      But before you diss them keep in mind what the internet's made for.....

  13. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Wow. I didn't know there were that many on the ranks

    If asked, I could have cited SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, and I think that's about all.

    Interesting read. Thanks for the article.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wow. I didn't know there were that many on the ranks

      More where that came from, too. Blue Origin isn't dead yet, for example, and I'm pretty certain Bezos has deeper pockets than Carmack.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: Wow. I didn't know there were that many on the ranks

        "More where that came from, too. Blue Origin isn't dead yet, "

        BO isn't "dead" at all (although it does have a slightly unfortunate set of initials :) ).

        It is however extremely discrete, which appears to be quite rare for a US company.

        They are working on a something like a 200 000 lb thrust LH2/LO2 rocket with their own test stand.

  14. Gary Bickford

    Baby steps is key, and we're all in it together

    My group (Space Finance Group) is working on both management services and funding for so-called "New Space" development companies. While some companies like those mentioned get most of the press, there are literally hundreds of companies involved, most of which will likely never make the news. Every rocket, every habitation module, every vehicle, is made of thousands of parts that are made by suppliers - from space-rated electronic components to window sealing compounds.

    In the relatively short time I've transitioned from an outsider watching this industry to an active participant, I've been astonished at just how large an industry it already is. Some indicators are the number of associations and magazines focussed on it, as well as the number of conferences and conventions.

    As I see it, there are three basic types of New Space plans, maybe four:

    - Tightly focussed, near-term operational businesses may already be profitable, or may be in the next year or two (but also with long term continuity plans) - this would be Space-X, Virgin Galactic, etc. I would add to this group, the many suppliers that already produce parts and services for both 'Old Space' and 'New Space' clients. This is the 'bread and butter' sector.

    - Higher risk, longer term projects with more or less technical risk and potential payouts (hopefully large) in the 10+year time frame. Examples would be Liftport, Deep Space Industries and Golden Spike. Most of these are struggling to get enough funding to go to the next step but there are some interesting ideas for getting some short-term operational revenues to justify initial funding.

    - 'Beyond Blue Sky' projects that require much more technical knowledge and/or much more available financial resources than we have availaable now. IMHO all of the Mars projects are presently in this paradigm. For any long-term microgravity habitation, our continuing experience on the International Space Station is a critical element in learning how to live in space. Another example in my mind is Space Solar Power, which has reasonable theory behind it but serious technical and financial risks, and perhaps most importantly political and public relations complications. It is hard to get funding for something that opponents can, and will use fear mongering to inflame the uninformed populace about.

    - Last is the large number of individuals who are designing space stations and new propulsion systems at home. Some of these folks will be found at every conference. A very few of these will pan out, and perhaps one out of 1000 will become the basis of the next generation of space systems, or the next after that. I think of these as modern Don Quixotes. It is almost impossible to tell which will succeed, and expensive to analyze their theories. Keep in mind that in the late 1970s, Martine Rothblatt was arguably one of these. She fought the system, overturned an international monopoly on communications satellites, and created Sirius Radio.

  15. 96percentchimp

    Space Expedition Curacao?

    XCOR isn't selling seats on its Lynx (actually, it's the Lynx 2). That's handled by Dutch company Space Expedition Curacao, which has contracted XCOR to supply it with Lynx 2's that will fly from Curacao in the Dutch Antilles. They're quite high profile and have signed up plenty of customers already.

    You got the price right, but sloppy research otherwise.

  16. NomNomNom

    Do these companies realize if they build the Alien Containment facility they can get research bonuses from interrogating certain aliens? Works out better than just throwing money and scientists at it.

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