Between the Earth and Mars, adventures to the Moon and building the habitats necessary for future astronauts are reshaping access to the stars
SpaceX’s announcement that they will launch two tourists on a trip around the moon has captured imaginations with renewed speculation about the future of space travel and accessibility to the beyond.
“We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission,” Musk wrote in their announcement. “Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration.”
However, it really is not fair to a number of other companies that are revolutionizing space travel all the same but don’t have the substantial resources or notoriety of Elon Musk’s gargantuan company. Musk’s celebrity status makes his every tweet a news story (not totally unlike, but in many ways extremely unlike, the newest US president). With that sort of figure, it is hard to capture people’s attention if you are running one of SpaceX’s “pretenders” and competitors. The Hawthorne, Cali company not only operates its own mission services using rockets it built itself, but also sells those rockets to other launch providers.
SpaceX is playing with an optimistic clock in terms of travel to Mars. Whether or not they do make it, and there is no reason to doubt they can’t beat the likes of NASA to the Martian surface, there is still a lot of ground to cover to ensure a sustainable space industry for the United States and beyond.
This year’s Lunar XPRIZE contest sponsored by Google will likely kick off a new era in space-bound venture capital and entrepreneurship as a flock of phoenixes rise from the sands of 2017’s moonshots. But plenty of other companies not looking to land rovers on nearby celestial bodies (sometimes more distant ones, or none at all) will also likely benefit from a sector that is overdue for an investment boom, including a growing number of firms building their own rockets with sleeker and more compact designs than the SpaceX Falcon 9.
This is a non-exhaustive list of 10 companies mirroring, challenging, or augmenting the work SpaceX is doing by following through on the next steps to getting humanity into space on a more regular basis:
1. SpaceIL (Israel)
SpaceIL is also worth mentioning here, but not for the same reasons as Moon Express. They are also part of the Google Lunar XPrize contest, but whether or not they win they will have enabled a team of some 250 people to get stronger in skill sets that will likely serve as the base of an entirely new ecosystem for space-faring technology. Being located in Israel and with enormous notoriety, it’s a foregone conclusion that simply being associated with this team will pay dividends for SpaceIL veterans.
They will also have major connections to the local startup ecosystem’s most influential leaders and top investors, eager to underwrite any entrepreneurship coming from the team. Expect that the end of the decade will see as many if not more space ventures come from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa as you will see from San Mateo, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park.
With those kinds of networks in hand and numerous well-connected government connections the team has made since launching the project, there’s a good chance this team will spawn a new sub-sector of the space startup scene: landers and probes. For the foreseeable remainder of 2017, nanosatellites will remain the booming sector for space, but talk of new missions across the solar system in addition to efforts to reach the moon will propel competition in the rover industry.
2. Axiom Space
Founded by CEO and President Michael T. Suffredini, former manager of the International Space Station for 10 years and instrumental in the ISS’s development, Axiom is developing the first private version of an ISS, which will become extremely important when the ISS is retired in the next few years.
Axiom’s plan is to attach the basis of the new station to the old ISS, making it independent when the original station is decommissioned. Once operating, the station will host 60-day-long astronautical missions, 7-to-10-day space tourist trips, on-orbit research and manufacturing (microgravity is ideal for production of bacteria for example, according to startup SpacePharma), and “exploration systems testing” with eyes on customers like Moon Express or SpaceX, which are considering plans for manned missions to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars.
It sports a stacked team with BizDev run by space shuttle mission specialist Michael Lopez-Alegria, Intuitive Machines CEO and Deputy Director of NASA Johnson Space Center Stephen Altemus, and Space Angels Network Managing Director Amir Blachman running strategic development.
Axiom’s missions are tentatively scheduled to begin by 2019.
3. Space Nation (Finland)
Launching a contest to go on a space vacation is the stuff of Total Recall, but the first true iteration of it is coming out of Finland this year. The effort is backed by a consortium of companies that includes the aforementioned Axiom Space. Equal partners include “space media company” Cohu Experience, “new Space” and education company Edge of Space, and Finnish education company Fun Academy.
The year-plus-long contest to recruit a new astronaut is itself a long-term test of brains, brawn and fortitude that begins with the release of a free-to-download app in the fall of 2017. After several months of open competition with brain games and challenges through the app, 130 semi-finalists will be invited for a two-week intensive course at a yet-to-be-chosen location. After that, 12 finalists will face off in a three-month-long battle to win the world’s first astronautical prize. The trip won’t be a vacation, as the winner — be he or she a scientist or not — will be trained to do experiments aboard the International Space Station. From there, one would presume the world is the winner’s oyster and a budding number of career opportunities will come their way.
“Back in the ’90s I began to wonder, ‘Why aren’t we on Mars? Why aren’t we back to the Moon?” Cohu Experience Founder and CEO Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola told Geektime recently. The golden age of startups has spurred his childhood dreams and an opportunity for a yet-to-be-found rookie astronaut. “We wouldn’t have founded this company and this venture, without this empowerment and all that entrepreneurial movement that anything is possible.”
4. Deep Space Industries
DSI is the only team on this list that is dead set on mining asteroids. Asteroid composition varies for a number of reasons and contain untold quantities of chemical and metallic resources from sulfur to gold. They are planning to reach so-called Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) before daring to venture further out to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The company explains many NEAs are smaller in mass, meaning their gravity will not be an obstacle to reaching the rocks and extracting resources.
Of course like any mining operation there will be a timeline. Probes would have to conduct prospecting, then harvest ore and process it. That’s without the task of returning the extracted material to Earth. Those initial prospecting missions are supposed to start soon with the launch of small probes like the Prospector-X, which will be tested in LEO with the co-sponsorship of the government of Luxembourg. Following what they hope are successful tests, a suped-up probe called Prospector-1 will be deployed to an NEA.
“DSI is developing Prospector-1 both for its own asteroid mining ambitions, as well as to bring an extremely low-cost, yet high-performance exploration capability to the market,” Grant Bonin, chief engineer at Deep Space Industries, explains on the company website. “We hope to enable both existing and new public and private organizations to explore the inner solar system using this affordable platform.”
But the most innovative idea here might not be in plans to dig up gold, platinum, or perhaps Rare Earth metals like lithium. They are targeting water-and-ice-rich asteroids first, which they claim will be in abundance among NEAs. The reason is simple: water will be the engine propellant the probes will use, thus initial missions will also save precious mass by refueling via its resource-extraction tests.
That plan resolves issues of feasibility. If their probes can successfully collect a resource and deploy it on the same trip, that would lend credence to ideas of using similar concepts with liquid methane lakes on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan or processing metals on site to construct replacement pieces for on-board computer hardware. It’s a robotic and engineering challenge that could pay bigger dividends for DSI than even the resources themselves.
5. Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace is one of the companies making strides building portable habitats for astronauts. Their first model, BEAM, was successfully attached to the International Space Station in spring 2016. The inflatable room was put together in seven hours by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams. At 13 feet long and 10.5 feet wide (4 x 3.2 meters), it’s definitely small, but this is just the company’s first deployment since receiving a $17.8 million contract from NASA back in 2013 to design and deploy an inflatable habitat.
“It sounds sort of like popcorn in a frying pan starts up,” Williams said at the time, reflecting the immediate effect pumped air had in the vacuum of space when BEAM was deployed. The goal is ultimately to extend these sorts of dwellings to locations beyond the ISS with the surfaces of the Moon and Mars first and foremost in the minds of the company’s executives and engineers.
“Expandable habitats significantly decrease the amount of transport volume for future space missions,” said NASA’s BEAM project manager, Rajib Dasgupta, said last year. “These expandables take up less room on a rocket, but once set up, provide greater volume for living and working. After thorough testing, we believe crews traveling to the Moon, Mars, asteroids or other destinations could use them as habitable structures or as labs or work areas.”
Creating a puncture-proof habitat would be critical for emergencies. Presumably, a long-term surface habitat would not be made only of inflatables, but these would serve astronauts in the field exploring Mars away from home base or as temporary fixes for fully-fledged and more complex astronaut homes in the future.
6. Vulcan Aerospace
Founded by Paul G. Allen in 2011, Vulcan’s subsidiary Stratolaunch Systems has been pushing for a more flexible and more cost-effective model for orbital launches that relies on using specially-designed high-atmospheric planes to deploy small payloads into low-Earth orbit (LEO). Deploying payloads by plane in theory will grant a lot of flexibility in terms of launch location and launch windows.
Without getting specific about the materials used to design their plane, Vulcan has commissioned Scaled Composites to build it. It will be 238 feet long and have a wing span of 385 feet, propelled by 6X Pratt & Whitney PW4056 engines with a maximum takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds.
They also reached a multi-year agreement in October 2016 with public aerospace and defense company Orbital ATK to use the latter’s Pegasus XL “air-launch vehicles” attached to Vulcan’s space-ward planes.
Orbital ATK President Scott Lehr said at the time, “The combination of our extensive air-launch experience and the Stratolaunch aircraft has the potential to provide innovative and cost-effective options for commercial launch customers.”
Their investment arm Vulcan Capital also took part in a $20 million Series B funding round for Spaceflight Industries back in March 2015.
While their concept is not new, it remains more logistically familiar than using rockets. Rocket reusability is also a novel and still unperfected concept. The durability and multi-usability of planes makes this an attractive option.
7. Odyne Space (Portland, Oregon)
Named after the Greek goddess of pain, Odyne is trying to make it cheaper to get nanosatellites into space by continuously working on more efficient rockets for smaller amounts of cargo. They certainly have the minds to meet needs for mettle. The company was founded by mechanical engineer and systems architect Eric Ward of MIT, who is also a co-founder of the MIT New Space Age Conference.
He will work in tandem with embedded systems expert and entrepreneur Andrew Greenberg, whose other companies have dealt with medical devices. He’s also the founder of the Portland State Aerospace Society (PSAS), whose acronym must be an allusion to the pizzazz the two hope to bring to the industrial space ecosystem.
“Space is Hard, but we won’t make it harder. We consider ourselves ‘Rocket Engineers’ not Rocket Scientists,” Odyne’s website explains. “Humans have been launching liquid-fueled rockets for almost a century, and the foundational science has already been done. We combine this science and knowledge into simple, effective and reliable rockets, to launch micro- and nano-satellites to orbit.”
They’re advised by Accion Systems Co-Founder and CEO Natalya Brikner as well as MIT School of Management lecturer Shari Loessberg.
The more the merrier when it comes to new rocket concepts. The talent behind this project is what gets it on the list, as there has been no proof of concept or even a design provided yet by Odyne. Ward is a prime example of the new kind of entrepreneur hitting the skies, as seen in this feature by Fast Company.
8. Rocket Lab (New Zealand)
An American-Kiwi company, Rocket Lab is the brainchild of New Zealander Peter Beck and just recently sent its Electron rocket for testing in February 2017 to its own launching station. They’ve developed their own engine, the 4,600lbf (pound force inch), turbo-pumped LOX/RP-1 Rutherford. Their first rocket, dubbed somewhat lazily “It’s a Test,” should get the all-clear to go to space later in 2017.
“It’s an important milestone for our team and for the space industry,” Beck said about the final pre-launch testing. “In the past, it’s been countries that go to space, not companies. Through the innovative use of new technologies our team has created a launch vehicle designed for manufacture at scale. Our ultimate goal is to change our ability to access space.”
They’ve raised an undisclosed amount of investments from Bessemer Venture Partners, K1W1, Khosla Ventures and even Lockheed Martin. Where those investors are excited is the service of selling the rockets themselves, which were projected back in 2015 to have an eventual price tag of a mere $4.9 million each. That’s about a tenth the price of a SpaceX Falcon 9. Their limit comes in the lighter payload.
You can infer that they have raised in the tens of millions of dollars at least, since New Zealand’s government will provide up to $5 million in matching investments for R&D with hi-tech businesses through the Callaghan Innovation Growth Grants program that Rocket Lab benefited from in 2014.
9. Ixion (Texas)
Not to be confused with the design-similar Axiom, Ixion is another joint effort making the list and yet another new venture that has already secured a deal with NASA. Backed by NanoRacks, Space Systems Loral (SSL) and the United Launch Alliance, Ixion will endeavor to figure out the best way to convert the upper stages of rockets into long-term habitats. That would circumvent the issue of throwing a habitat into a cargo hold or building one from scratch using 3D-printing-like machines on the surface of the Moon or Mars.
Ixion will enter the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) program and start by testing their projects in LEO. They will try to demonstrate its proof of concept by converting a Centaur rocket’s upper stage, then attaching it to the International Space Station. Like Bigelow, they have their eyes set on the surfaces of not-so-distant moons and the rest of the Sun’s planets.
“Our plan is to dramatically lower the proposed costs for habitats to allow for the largest customer base, both commercial and government,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “With Loral and NanoRacks working together, we have the knowledge base to assure a solid commercial use of tomorrow’s habitats via re-purposed ULA Centaur platforms.”
The ISS will support three of the companies on this list in the near future, illustrating how important Axiom’s private space station project will be for future habitability tests and support. Expect more companies to enter that fray eventually as it becomes one the one hand more feasible to build alternative private space stations and more experts from agencies like NASA with ISS experience enter the business world.
10. Firefly Space
a href=”http://www.fireflyspace.com”>Firefly wants to make space launches ubiquitous, and they see that happening through their proprietary light rocket design. They’re looking to capitalize on projected, meteoric growth in the small satellites industry that has seen companies like Planet launch massive (88-strong) constellations as recently as February 2017. That launch included other projects though from small nanosat companies and even universities. With demand expected to grow and payloads regularly hosting more than 100 nanosatellites at a time, there will be a race to provide fast and efficient service. This rocket is thin. Stage 1 (the bottom part) is only 6 feet in diameter while Stage 2 (the top part) is 5 feet in diameter.
It can hold a 200 kg payload and uses an “aerospike” booster, which the company says is “more efficient across the range of pressures in rocket flight” than traditional bell nozzles.They recently announced $300 million worth of preliminary orders (which they refer to as letters of intent/LOI) from prospective customers that would fill their launch schedule through 2021.
That would include 42 launches, with another 35 launches worth $280 million anticipated between 2022 and 2025.With a NASA deal in hand, expect their first NASA launch to take place in March 2018.