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Technology in the Blast Radius

September 18, 2013

Today we have a competition in the public space market, as Orbital Sciences goes up against SpaceX in an effort to win a share.

The first company to successfully emerge from the process was California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which so far has made a test fight and two supply runs to the station. SpaceX also is among three firms developing space taxis to fly station crew members under a related NASA program.

On Wednesday, a second firm, Orbital Sciences Corp., will attempt to follow SpaceX to the station’s door. Launch of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule is scheduled for 10:50 a.m. EDT from a commercial spaceport on Wallops Island, Va.

If the launch goes as planned, the Cygnus would reach the station on Sunday and remain attached to the outpost for about a month. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsules, which return to Earth intact, Cygnus spacecraft are designed to burn up in the atmosphere during re-entry.

This is cool.  The fact that NASA held such a monopoly on space in the US prevented a lot of good ideas from being tried.  But with that, it also proved that there are some pretty standard rules of business.  One of them: you need to make money to stay in business.  Because there hasn’t been a lot to do in space around the government work, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in getting there.  Sure, there are satellites up there, but they’re pretty low-maintenance in terms of service.  Generally if one goes, they just dump another one in its place, and the payload rates are bearable.

To truly find business in space, you need to have more than the International Space Station as a customer… at least it seems that way to me.  SpaceX is intent on tourism as a growth area.  Take people up to see the curve of the earth, and then bring them back  in one piece.  Orbital Sciences?  Well, right now they’re in the payload delivery business.  If they can do it less expensively than a subsidized government, then they’re solid.

But at some point, the business of space has to go beyond expensive mail delivery and the equivalent of a short museum trip.  Either the technologies that put things into space have to find relevant uses for more terrestrial ideas, or we have to find a real reason to be in space.  There are plenty of concepts, and I still wouldn’t be all that surprised to see some form of construction projects start in orbit… a power generation station, scientific research facility, static payload carrier… the possibilities are pretty massive.  I just wonder if the first entrants in the business are the one who will win, or if it’s going to take a different approach to the business.

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