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Are private launches changing the rocket equation?
by Staff Writers
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Feb 10, 2016

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From the dreams of early humans who envied the flight of birds to the drawings of ornithopters by Leonardo da Vinci to the first successful powered flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright, humans have always striven to fly.

As aviation developed in leaps and bounds the lure of exploration by sending rockets into orbit began to move forward. The earliest pioneer to successfully launch a liquid-fueled rocket was the American Robert Goddard in 1926, but a team of scientists in Nazi Germany during the Second World War developed the V2 rocket weapon, which had a devastating effect on the southern counties of England.

After the war both the Soviet Union and the USA began work on space programs - only governments at that stage had the money to research and develop rockets, and it was the Soviets who won the so-called Space Race by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. This was followed by the first human going into space, orbiting the Earth and safely returning. The pilot was Yuri Gagarin who made this incredible flight in 1961.

When the USA landed the first humans on the Moon in 1969, with the Soviet Union failing to achieve manned lunar missions, that aspect of the Space Race finished.

Today many countries have a space program, including China and India, and the USA and Russia have collaborated in the setting up and development of the International Space Station (ISS) - this is now the biggest artificial body in orbit.

Rockets and satellites are extremely expensive and as sovereign countries find it less easy to divert money from other uses, or certainly as much as they used to, to space research, a new breed of entrepreneurs has come forward to look at ways to make rocketry and space travel add up commercially.

The new breed
Rockets have been used for decades to put payloads into space, especially satellites for communications and navigation systems as well as for civilian and military observation purposes. The space entrepreneurs have already been testing rockets with launches to see how they can best develop further space flights and there is considerable excitement in the industry that in the not too distant future not only will private rockets continue to launch satellites but offer the possibility of manned flights both for research and exploration as well as tourism. It may seem like one giant science fiction story but there are people out there willing to put their money into such projects.

Space Exploration Technologies has, over many years, been designing, building and successfully launching rockets for a wide range of commercial customers as well as for missions for the US government. Set up and run by CEO Elon Musk, who also co-founded Tesla Motors, the company has concentrated its energies on developing its family of Falcon rockets. Falcon 1 made its first successful flight in September 2008, though earlier initial attempts had been costly failures.

The most recent news is that at the end of 2015 the company launched its latest rocket, a Falcon 9, to deploy 11 satellites when it reached orbit. What made this launch special is that the booster was brought back to Earth for a soft, upright landing only a few miles from where it blasted off at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It's the first time that a rocket has been successfully recovered from an orbital flight and has considerable implications for the future of space flight, not least in terms reducing costs. If the technology continues to develop, together with its Dragon Space Capsule that has delivered cargo to the International Space Station, there are good opportunities for many more private launches. Real news on a daily basis about rocket launches is easy to find.

Orbital Sciences
The company started work on the Antares and Cygnus space vehicles in 2008 and just five years later, in 2013, an Antares rocket blasted off from Virginia carrying the robotic Cygnus spacecraft with its first delivery to the orbiting International Space Station. It was a major test flight for Orbital Sciences and was completely successful, thereby demonstrating that private companies are able, if they get the backing, to construct and launch such highly sophisticated machinery. At the end of 2015 the most recent launch of Cygnus to resupply the ISS took place, this time using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Blue Origin
Established by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is working on the development of reusable rockets and spacecraft so that astronauts can be launched into suborbital and orbital space. The company's New Shepard suborbital vehicle had a successful launch in April 2015 from West Texas. The question of reusability arises again with advocates suggesting this could cut the cost of flights dramatically for crewed space exploration. For orbital launches the company is developing a new rocket that Jeff Bezos and colleagues are naming "Very Big Brother" to be powered by a new engine, the BE-4, currently under development with United Launch Alliance the launch provider.

Virgin Galactic
British entrepreneur Richard Branson has been working on trying to create a new tourism industry for suborbital space. SpaceShipTwo is a six-passenger vehicle that will be carried to around 50,000 feet on the back of an aircraft - expected to be a Boeing 747 and known as WhiteKnightTwo. The vehicle is then dropped and will blast up to suborbital space with the thrust from its rocket engine. Travelers will experience a few minutes of being weightless before returning to Earth for a runway landing. This is still in the test phase and a tragic accident in 2014, causing the death of the co-pilot and serious injury to the pilot of SpaceShipTwo, has put the whole project on hold.

Space: the final frontier
The enormous success of films such as Star Trek and Star Wars demonstrates the thirst that millions of people have for stories of space travel. What they often don't realize is the time it takes for the research, development and testing. Space travel is a dangerous business but still a dream for many wanting to explore the outer reaches of the Earth and further afield. The arrival of innovative private companies with galactic visions is helping to change the rocket equation.

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