The concept of private enterprise exploiting space to build and grow thriving business ventures is nothing new. It has been around since 1965. That's when the first: commercial satellite, called Early Bird, went into regular revenue service with 240 telephone circuits.
Since then, the private sector has continued to expand its involvement in space activities beyond anything most people could have imagined 50 years ago, when President Kennedy exhorted the nation to land Americans on the moon and return them safely by the end of the 1960s. As celebrated as NASA's Apollo missions were, climaxing in Neil Armstrong's radio transmission, "That's one small step for mankind ..." from the moon's surface in July 1969, it is easy to overlook the fact, that private enterprise has designed, built and helped operate the spacecraft and infrastructure for every US civil and military space mission. And the same goes for every other space mission in the Free World.
Today, the commercial utilization of space is an essential component of telecommunications, financial markets, and a host of other critical sectors. But now the private sector's involvement in space is fat approaching a new paradigm, courtesy of a growing number of entrepreneurial pioneers, mostly in the United States. They are combining a vision, a can-do spirit and varying degrees of technical knowledge to set the agenda. A few of them--each a high-profile figure in aerospace circles who have a track record of disruptive innovations and self-promotion--have been claiming for a decade that commercial space was on the cusp of a new paradigm, but it never quite materialized. That is about to change, and a new era in commercial space is dawning. This is the decade in which skeptics will witness various firsts in commercial space.
That the private sector is pushing the boundaries and are on the threshold of achieving what amounts to a critical mass should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying close attention. Enabling technologies, such as propulsion and aerodynamics, have made huge advances to the point where they can now be adapted to commercial ventures. The private sector also possesses the know-how developed over decades of collaborating with the government on manned and unmanned systems designed specially for space. Adding further impetus to the private sector's expanding role was the decision by the US government last year to retire the Space Shuttle, despite having no other means to launch Americans into space than to rely on Russia.
Governments will still take the lead in some areas, of course, as in the ongoing militarization of space. In addition, they will continue to partner with private enterprise on many space initiatives and actively support the private sector's efforts to broaden its participation. Moreover, only nations will be able to afford the most ambitious projects, such as exploring the universe, continuing the search for extraterrestrial life, and searching for asteroids that could be catastrophic on a global scale and developing possible defenses against them. All the same, it is the private sector that's in the vanguard of opening a new era in space--and it is closer than you might think.
Just as the idea of space tourism was unimaginable 50 years ago except to science fiction writers, the evolutionary paths that commercial space could take in the next decade or two might seem equally far-fetched. But the projects currently taking shape are no fantasy. Even the most well-grounded space program veterans agree that space tourism--among other bold new commercial space ventures--is likely to emerge as a niche but growing industry within the next 10 years.
Like any nascent field of commerce, space tourism will begin modestly. As it now appears, Virgin Galactic, a spin-off of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, is apt to lead the way. Within the next year or two, a Virgin Galactic Spaceship will be carried aloft underneath a large aircraft fiying" high above the ground. …