Investment in what was originally known as the Space Race was the preserve of national governments. Frankly it was too expensive – and risky – for private investors and there were always the “security” aspects of the technology to be considered. In those early days, the US and USSR (now Russia) went head-to-head in a fight for kudos in space.
The Russians got the first astronaut there and the Americans put the first man on the moon. After that things cooled down and now there is plenty of cooperation between Russia, the US and other space-faring nations regarding the development of the International Space Station.
Innovation in the Aerospace industry
Technological developments and innovations have come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s, and private investors have brought a new way of looking at how space exploration can be moved forward. Private companies have been involved in launching communications satellites for many years and are now delivering payloads for research to the International Space Station (ISS) as well as exploring options for manned space flight, along with the possibility of setting up a colony on Mars.
SpaceX, the company set up by billionaire Elon Musk, was launched in 2002 with the goal of constructing spacecraft to be used for commercial space travel. The company was awarded a contract by the US space agency NASA to handle cargo transport to the ISS. There are also plans to replace the space shuttle missions run by NASA with SpaceX’s own astronaut transport.
Aerospace is not simply about heading into space, though innovation and curiosity continue to drive the desire to explore beyond our planet. Innovation also comes in private jets – most notably – the Gulfstream series used by high-flying business people throughout the world. Business magnate Steve Wynn, who helped build Las Vegas into the renowned capital of gambling, luxury and family entertainment, flies on the G650. He’s one of the first customers to own one, and has updated this to an extended range (ER) to fly all over the world for his business pursuits. The efforts that go into this area of aerospace development are likely to have applications in the wider world of space technology.
Transforming the rocket industry
Cost has always been a major factor in how the aerospace industry has developed, both for commercial aircraft and for rockets and space shuttles. When NASA designed the original space shuttle to be reusable, it marked a turning point in the thinking of how costs could be cut in the future, without compromising on safety. Space travel has inherent risks – as, of course, does ordinary air travel – but without taking these risks into account and working to mitigate them, there would be no sensible technological developments in the aerospace industry.
As well as the potential for cutting costs, reusable space vehicles – whether rockets or shuttles – reduce the amount of energy and materials that go into the construction of them. This helps reduce the carbon footprint of the industry with an overall benefit to the ecology of the globe.
Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos, who launched Blue Origin, has had the company working on producing a successful reusable rocket. A launch in 2015 took a rocket into suborbital space and a subsequent soft landing in western Texas. The rocket was unmanned and is considered to have the potential to make a real difference in spaceflight costs. It has yet to prove itself in an orbital launch, but there is little doubt that development work will continue to prove the technology outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Virgin developments
Entrepreneur Richard Branson has been working with his company Virgin Galactic to launch rockets for putting communications satellites into orbit by using a Boeing 747-400 airplane. Branson calls the airplane the “mothership” that can have a LauncherOne rocket mounted onto the airplane under its left wing.
This means that a ground launch pad, with its associated fixed costs and other logistical requirements, is unnecessary. The plan is that the rocket disengages at the appropriate altitude, its engine fires up and it continues to put a satellite payload into orbit. Despite tech problems with a fatal crash in 2014, the company is pursuing the next phase of its space-travel developments.
Looking to the future
Humankind has always dreamed of the stars, and as private investors build on the accomplishments of those who pioneered space travel, there will be more innovations and breakthroughs to come.