U.S. Private Sector Leads Space Exploration

The Daily Yomiuri (Toyko, Japan), October 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

U.S. Private Sector Leads Space Exploration


WASHINGTON -- In the 1960s, the United States put its national pride on the line by embarking on a mission to land on the moon. Now, half a century since the moon landing, the U.S. private sector has assumed a prominent role in the country's research and development for space exploration. After the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration retired its space shuttle program (see below) in 2011, the private sector stepped in to perform many of NASA's original duties. In addition, industries have begun to eye new business opportunities such as space hotels and space tourism.

Entrepreneurship igniting

The Wall Street Journal once wrote that Elon Musk, 45, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, in the United States, would completely reshape the space industry upon entering it. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 by investing the money he earned in his IT business. Since 2008, he also has occupied the top post at electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors Inc.

SpaceX has handled resupply missions for the International Space Station (ISS) since 2012, having taken over the role after NASA retired the space shuttle program. The company has found ways to cut rocket development costs by recruiting younger workers and relying on in-house parts production, enabling it to launch a rocket for 62 million dollars (about 6.2 billion yen) -- about 30 percent cheaper than the price cited by other Western companies.

To cut space development costs even further, Musk is employing the strategy of reusing the rocket's first stage, which conventionally is disposed after each launch.

According to Musk, the fuel needed for the rocket launch costs 200,000 dollars (20 million yen), meaning most spending goes to rocket production. Reusing the rocket's first stage can significantly reduce production costs.

The firm began to experiment with first-stage rocket landings in January 2015. Its first successful landing at a land-based facility occurred in December that year. In April, a SpaceX rocket successfully landed on a drone ship at sea. The retrieved rocket, currently being stored at a warehouse in Florida, is scheduled to be reused for an upcoming launch this autumn.

The company also plans to send astronauts into space in 2017, the first attempt by the private sector. If successful, it will be the first launch of a manned spacecraft in the United States in six years, since the country relies on Russia for launching manned rockets.

Hotel, tourism

U.S. private businesses are undertaking a variety of space-related projects. In April this year, the test launch of a space hotel prototype (see below) made headlines. Bigelow Aerospace, LLC., the company behind the launch, was founded by Las Vegas hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow, 72.

After docking at the ISS in late May, the hotel-like spacecraft was successfully inflated like a balloon. Bigelow plans future missions to launch large-scale living units, in the hopes of replicating the success of his Las Vegas-based hotel business in space.

There is also a growing effort to commercialize space tourism, which lets passengers experience zero gravity for a short time in outer space. …

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