The privatization of space

I was in Russia and Kazakhstan last week to witness close up the launch of Soyuz TMA-14 taking three cosmonauts to the International Space Station.  Interestingly, one of them is a private citizen paying his own way.  It is Charles Simonyi's second such trip, but as a billionaire from his Microsoft days, he can afford the $30m price tag.

The trips are organized by Space Adventures (with whom I long ago booked a sub-orbital flight).  Their private space voyagers are no longer called 'tourists,' but 'mission participants,' since they undergo the same training as other cosmonauts, and perform a series of experiments while in orbit.

Burt Rutan won the X-Prize for sending the first private manned rocket flight into space, funded by Paul Allen, also ex-Microsoft, rather than by any government.  Paul Allen was also there to see Soyuz 14 blast off.  There are several private space vehicles under development, the most publicized one being the Virgin Galactic successor to Rutan's SpaceShipOne, and including SpaceX's Falcon series and Bigelow Aerospace's expandable module.

There is now widespread recognition and acceptance that the next big wave of space activity will be private.  Space tourism is reckoned to have huge growth potential, as do customized launches tailored for private customers.  It will bring non-taxpayer money into space exploration and development, as well as unleashing new creative thinking.  The era is drawing to a close when only government-backed projects and those selected by governments could undertake space voyages.  Replacing it will be the era when space is for everyone.  Of course it will be high-priced at first, but it will rapidly make its way down into accessible price ranges as new technologies and techniques are developed.

The students of Cambridge University Spaceflight are on course to put a rocket into space this September on a student budget.  They have spent over a year perfecting their balloon techniques to take payloads to the edge of space (30km), and have been developing a rocket to be launched from it to cover the additional 70km to reach 100km, the international definition of where outer space begins.  Once again, their effort is entirely private.  They are raising the sponsorship to fund their project.

Space exploration seemed to go into a lull after the excitement of the moon landings and the end of the space race.  Now, it is starting to move again, and it is private projects that are generating the excitement.