Did you know that before 2012, only government-operated vehicles had ever visited the ISS?
The Dragon was the station’s first commercial vehicle to dock. The achievement was a crowning triumph for the commercial spaceflight business, which has irreversibly transformed the sector during the last ten years. The space sector has transformed in the last decade, with new firms seeking to profit on new markets and more ambitious projects. As a result, the business sector has experienced unprecedented expansion. It makes access to space easier than ever before, with both beneficial and harmful consequences.
The history of full private space transportation includes early efforts by a German company named OTRAG in the 20th century. It was founded in 1975 and was the very first private company to attempt to launch a private spacecraft. Testing of its OTRAG rocket began in 1977. More recent commercial spaceflight projects include the suborbital flights of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, the orbital flights of SpaceX, and other COTS participants.
The most famous one, SpaceX, first went to orbit on September 28th, 2008 with its Falcon 1 rocket, whose goal was also the testing of components and designs that would, later on, be used on Falcon 9.
Another example is Blue Origin. The company has recently crossed a huge milestone out of their list by launching into suborbital space 4 people, including Jeff Bezzos, the founder of the company. This was the company’s first crewed mission on the New Shepard vehicle and for sure a landmark moment for the man and the space tourism industry. “Blue Control, Bezos. Best day ever!” Bezos said while in flight.
Another player in the industry is Virgin Galactic, a publicly traded space flight company of the Virgin Group. It is developing commercial spacecraft and aims to provide suborbital space flights for space tourists and suborbital launches for space science missions. In December 2018 the company halted ticket sales shortly after its VSS Unity vehicle reached suborbital space for the first time on a piloted test flight. Back then the price was $250,000 per seat. Recently, on August 5th, the company announced that it’s reopening ticket sales effectively immediately, with a starting price of $450,000 per seat, more than double what they have announced before. Unity’s fourth mission, which took place on July 11st from Spaceport America in New Mexico, prompted the decision. Unity’s first fully crewed flight to the final frontier was on that test mission; the space aircraft carried Branson and three other people in its cabin, as well as two pilots in the cockpit. Customers have three options: buy a single-seat, buy several seats together, or book the full flight on the eight-passenger Unity (or other space planes that come into operation, such as the recently built VSS Imagine). About 600 people have already bought their tickets. The company also sells seats for microgravity research and professional astronaut training. Those are in a different tier, going up to $600,000 per seat.
While all of this sounds very exciting, there are some major downsides. SpaceX, OneWeb, and many other companies have been filling low Earth orbit with thousands of satellites. The problem is that it is not known what these satellites will do to the space around Earth. There are some concerns that so many satellites will transform the night sky and make it hard for astronomers to observe the Universe. Nevertheless, it is even more concerning the number of satellites that these companies will launch in the future to an already congested region of space. Injecting thousands of satellites into orbit over the next few years may drastically increase the chances of things colliding. The result could be that low Earth orbit becomes too crowded and unusable.
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