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A Short History of
Private Space Development

(Under construction)

SpaceShipOne heads for space
In its successful trek to the X PRIZE, the suborbital SpaceShipOne from Scaled Composites
became the first privately built, owned, and operated manned vehicle to reach space.

Attempts to develop spaceflight projects by organizations outside of the government have been going on since the "rocket age" of the 1920s and 1930s. The goal has been to put space development on a course like that followed by most other industries in which private firms use innovation and efficient organizations to reduce the price of their goods and services and thereby attract large markets for them.

This page gives a brief history of these sorts of private and commercial approaches to developing space.

[As mentioned earlier, we are focused in this section on NewSpace sorts of enterprises and leave the satcom and unmanned space infrastructure types of space goods and services to the Space Business section.]

EZ-Rocket
The XCOR EZ-Rocket demonstrated that its liquid fueled rocket engine
could operate safely and reliably over multiple flights. The vehicle
became the inspiration for the Rocket Racing League.

Private Spaceflight Development Timeline

Here is a rough timeline for private spaceflight projects that sought to expand the use of rockets and spaceflight far beyond what government programs were doing at the time.


Early Efforts

Rocket clubs and other non-governmental organizations and individuals in the pre-WW II period led the development of rocketry.

Rocket mail - Various efforts to use rockets for fast delivery of mail took place during the pre-war period but never came to practical routine use. Probably the last attempt to develop a rocket mail system was a test for the US Post Office in 1959.

Alex MacDonald has written about the significant funding of telescope observatories and scientific expeditions by private individuals in the 1800s and early 1900s. The Lick Observatory, for example, in 1876 was given the equivalent of $1,220,000,000 in today's dollars.

James Lick was the richest man in California and the Lick Observatory expenditure represented 17.5% of his entire estate. The equivalent share o f the wealth of the richest man in California today, Larry Ellison, is $3.9 billion dollars, approximately four times higher than the GDP equivalent share.

See these resources:


1960s

AMSAT - Birth of the Nanosat
Based primarily within the amateur radio community, the AMSAT program began not long after Sputnik reached orbit. AMSAT quickly made major contributions to the development of communications satellites and continues to do so today. The AMSAT projects have led the movement to prove that small satellites can carry out very useful and important tasks.

See the Satellite Building and the Space Radio sections for resources dealing with both AMSAT and student satellite programs.

Space hotels and lunar flight reservations
There were various semi-serious, semi-tongue-in-cheek discussions of space hotels and space tourism during the 1960s. For example, Barron Hilton of Hilton Hotels famously talked about establishing a space hotel and Lunar Hilton as well: Hotels in Space, Barron Hilton, AAS 67-126, 1967 AAS Conference Proceedings (reprinted at SpaceFuture.com).

In 1968 during a break from the Apollo 8 transmissions from the Moon, the President of Pan Am called the ABC TV network to announce that the airline would start accepting reservations for future lunar flights. The company was swamped with applicants and soon other airlines like TWA began making similar offers. By the time Pan Am closed the program 1971, over 93,000 people had applied. More at Fly me to the Moon - Retrofuture.com. (See also Chapter 2 in Space Tourism by Michael van Pelt.)

Other items:


1970s

Project Harvest Moon
A group called the Committee for the Future, which included a number of notables such as the futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, developed a plan to buy two Saturn vehicles to fly to the Moon. The project would be paid for out of the sale of lunar materials and media rights. (See Greg Klerkx's book Lost in Space (2004, Amazon: US UK) for more info about this and other private space ventures.)

Robert Truax & Project Private Enterprise
Truax developed his first rockets in the 1930s and continued working in rocketry up into this decade. He led several missile programs in the Navy and Air Force until he retired in 1959. He then formed Truax Engineering and worked in a number of space and missile programs in the 1960s.

He was always keen on developing low cost access to space and came up with many designs to achieve that. He particularly focused on sea launched systems such as the Sea Dragon and Excalibur.

He obtained general public attention when he built the steam rocket that powered the X-1 Skycycle for daredevil Evel Knievel's famoust jump over the Snake River Canyon.

During the 1970s he developed probably the first serious design for a suborbital space tourist vehicle. Called the VolksRocket X-3, it would take one person to 50 miles altitude using four 1000 pound thrust surplus vernier engines used on Atlas rockets. However, his Project Private Enterprise was never able to raise the million dollars needed to build the VolksRocket. See:

Further information about Truax:

Otrag
This controversial German project was one of the first purely private rocket development programs. Unfortunately, it got caught up in Cold War politics and its own bad choices for partners (e.g. the final partner was Libya). The project was started in 1975 by the German aerospace engineer Lutz Kayser who developed an innovative modular design that would allow an multi-stage orbital rocket to be built up from clusters of very low cost rockets. See the links below for details of the project's history.

Though the project eventually collapsed due to political pressures on it, the design concept still draws interest, e.g. John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace has indicated that his modular approach to suborbital and orbital vehicles was inspired by Otrag.

Private Space Shuttle
In 1978 a group investigated the possibility of buying a fifth Shuttle and operating it with a consortium similar to the original COMSAT.

Gerard O'Neill and the Space Colony Movement
[Under construction...]
See

Other Items


1980s

Spacehab
Spacehab was the first company to create a commercial business based just on human spaceflight. The firm raised private money to fund development and construction of cargo modules for the Space Shuttle. Founded in 1984, it finally got a contract with NASA for use of its modules on Shuttle flights in 1990. They have also been used to support the Shuttle/Mir and ISS programs.

The company expected also to rent out its modules to pharmaceutical and other companies for carrying out micro-gravity experiments on the Shuttle for development of commercial products. But the incredibly high launch prices plus the enormous mountains of NASA red tape and long delays between flight opportunities wiped out commercial interest in their service. (And interest, in fact, did exist, and still does, for such research in space.) So NASA became Spacehab's only customer.

ISF - Industrial Space Facility
This proposed min-space station was designed by the famous spacecraft engineer Max Faget, who designed most of the early US crew capsules during the Moon Race. He had left NASA and formed his own company called Space Industries Inc. in 1982. The ISF would be tended by the Space Shuttle and left unmanned while experiments of various sorts would run autonomously.

The ISF history is rather tortured (see the long article by Lindross). It's inital prospects for leasing space to private companies became less and less tenable as the limitations of the Shuttles became clear. Furthermore, after the Space Station project began at NASA, the agency began to see the ISF as a threat to that project and helped to undermine support for the ISF.

Orbital Sciences
This company has accomplished the remarkable task of becoming a significant player in the mainstream space industry during a period when space spending was flat and when many traditional aerospace companies were disappearing via mergers and acquisitions.

See the following links for more about the history of the company and the development of the Pegasus launcher. The Pegasus is an air-launched and solid-fueled vehicle and was the first orbital rocket system to be developed completely with private funding. (DARPA contracted Orbital for Pegasus launches but did not provide it with development funding. The SpaceX Falcon 1 will be the first liquid-fueled rocket developed with private funding.)

Space Services
Space Services, Inc was a small firm headed by former astronaut Deke Slayton that tried to develop commercial spaceflight projects such as the Percheron.

Percheron
A project in 1981 to develop a low cost launcher. Space Services, Inc. funded the building of a prototype vehicle by GCH, Inc. a company led by Gary C. Hudson. A flight test failed and a lack of capital prevented further development.

EER Conestoga I
A project in the early 1980s by Space Services Inc (Deke Slayton's company). On Sept, 9, 1982, they carried out the first launch of a privately financed rocket to reach space with the suborbital launch of the Conestoga I. There were two successful suborbital launches in all but the company eventually failed due to a lack of capital.

 

International Microspace (initially named Micro Satellite Launch Systems)

StarStruck
This company (initially ARC Technology) sought to develop a low cost hybrid rocket suborbital launcher called the Dolphin in 1984. It was the predecessor to AMROC.

AMROC
AMROC sought to develop a high performance hybrid rocket engine (liquid oxygen and solid fuel) that could help power a vehicle to orbit. The project made considerable progress towards this goal but a series of disasters including the death of its president George Koopman in a car accident. A stuck valve during a launch test in 1989 did not cause an explosion but the resulting fire did eventually destroy the vehicle while it was on the pad. Though the cause of the failure was unrelated to the fundamental design, the failure undercut investor confidence. See the Spacearium pages for the full story of the project and how it eventually came to an end. (Mike Griffin worked for awhile at AMROC.)

In 1998, SpaceDev bought the rights to the AMROC hybrid technology and it became the basis for the motors that SpaceDev provided for the SpaceShipOne flights.

Other Small Commercial Spaceflight Projects

  • E'Prime Aerospace
    • Formed in 1987 with the goal of using converted ICBMs (MX Peacekeepers) for commercial launches. Has had many setbacks and internal problems, but is still pursuing this course.
    • Private Rocket in Brief Flight - New York Times - Nov.20.1988 - "10-foot rocket bearing four experiments made a five-minute flight Thursday in a private commercial space venture. The tiny rocket pushed the payload container to an altitude of about 14,000 feet. The launcing by the E Prime Aerospace Company of Titusville, Fla., was the first time a privately owned rocket had been launched from either Air Force or space agency facilities here."

1990s

Rotary Rocket ATV
Rotary Rocket's Atmospheric Test Vehicle (ATV)
in flight over Mojave Airport


The Big LEO Constellation Tease

The 1990s became an exciting period for private space development because it seemed that there would finally emerge a substantial market on which commercial space transport companies could build their businesses. Several large projects were initiated with the goal of placing large constellations of satellites into low earth orbit to provide mobile phone and internet communications services to the entire world.

Teledesic planned a constellation of several hundred satellites that would give high speed broadband service to users everywhere. Motorola's Iridium and Loral's Globalstar planned to offer satellite links directly to hand-held mobile phones throughout the world.

Simply providing a replacement launch service for faulty or obsolete satellites in these constellations was expected to support at least two or three launch companies. Several launch companies formed (several of which are listed below) to pursue this market.

Unfortunately, by the time that Iridium and Globalstar got into orbit in the late 1990s, terrestrial cell phone services had already spread to most developed countries and the resulting economies of scale had produced quite low prices. The satphone systems had been designed early in the 1990s and had several shortcomings: the phones were large and heavy, the usage prices were very high, and they could not be used indoors easily. (Subsequently, the companies were reorganized as private firms and are succeeding at providing niche services for emergency communications, access to remote locations, aviation communications, etc.)

Teledesic never even got a satellite into orbit. Support for the project evaporated as its costs escalated and faith by investors in the LEO constellation approach was undercut by the satphone constellation failures. The project was eventually abondoned.

When these LEO constellations failed, most of the startup launch companies either disappeared or shifted towards other markets such as NASA launch services and suborbital space tourism.


Advent Launch Services
Civilian Astronauts Corps in 1997 - the organizers of this project tried to raise money via $2000 contributions from the public who would obtain the opportunity of later flying on the Advent vehicle. However, the firm could not reach a sum sufficient to develop the vehicle and so all of the money collected was returned to contributers.

Beal Aerospace
An ambitious private expendable launch vehicle project started in the 1990s by Texas billionaire Andrew Beale. In March 2000, the company test fired the BA-810 hydrogen peroxide/kerosene engine, which was the largest liquid fueled rocket engine developed in the US since the Apollo program. However, later that year Beale closed the company, claiming that it was not possible for a purely private launcher to compete with military and NASA funded programs such as the EELVs.

Kistler Aerospace - K-1 Reusable Luancher
The K-1 is a fully reusable two-stage orbital launcher. It was designed to server the LEO constellation market of the 1990s. After the failure of that market the company had to suspend development of the vehicle while looking for further funding. Several times it seemed that NASA would provide it with contracts that would allow it to raise funding but these were either insufficient or fell through. (SpaceX successfully challenged one contract that had been awarded in a sole source manner.) Eventually the company went into bankruptcy having spent $800M while having raised only $600M.

Kistler Aerospace came out of bankruptcy after successfully re-negotiating its debts but it still had trouble raising funding to get its vehicle development back on track. In March 2006, Rocketplane bought Kistler and in August of 2006 the Rocketplane-Kistler won an agreement with NASA under the COTS program to demonstrate the capability to provide cargo resupply services to the ISS. Unfortunately, Rocketplane-Kistler was unable to raise the required matching funds from private investors and the COTS agreement was canceled in late 2007.

See the following links for further info

Rotary Rocket
See the Rotary Rocket links and the interview with Gary Hudson.

Lunar Prospector

SpaceDev
Founded by the late Jim Benson, the company Initially pursued a commercial asteroid prospector mission. However, experiments that were proposed to by carried on the spacecraft were not approved by NASA and the project eventually was abandoned (see Rex Ridenoure's Space Review history of the project). Eventually, SpaceDev developed into a smallsat builder and a hybrid rocket motor firm (Benson obtained the IP of the AMROC company). SpaceDev provided the SpaceShipOne hybrid motor.

Benson left the firm in 2006 to form BensonSpace to build suborbital space vehicles, including the Dream Chaser, in partnership with SpaceDev. Unfortunately, he died two years later of a brain tumor. SpaceDev was soon bought by Sierra Nevada, which has developed the Dream Chaser concept into a possible NASA Commercial Crew Program provider of transportation to the ISS.

Surrey Space Technology
A spinoff of the AMSAT/student satellite program at the University of Surrey, this firm succeeded in making a commercial business from small satellites.

Universal Space Networks
This company, co-founded by Pete Conrad, offers low cost ground station support for satellite control and telemetry services.

Blastoff! - IdealLab project

MirCorp
This company carried out a serious effort to privatise the Russian Mir space station. They did not succeed but did helped to set in motion the Dennis Tito flight to the ISS and the subsequent ISS space tourism program (though taken over by Space Adventures). They backed the first privately financed manned space mission when they funded a Soyuz mission to Mir. See details about MirCrop in the NewSpace business section and in the Space Tourism section.

The documentay Orphans of Apollo: The Battle of the Mir & the New Space Revolution tells the behind the scenes story of the project.


2000-2006

X Prize
A hugely successful competition that required private teams to build manned rocket vehicles capable of flying to 100km twice within two weeks. It was won in October of 2004 by the SpaceShipOne team led by Burt Rutan.

Suborbital Transport
This decade has become a boom time for suborbital spaceflight projects. Here are some of the projects and companies:

Several of these companies are pursuing the suborbital tourism business but scientific and reconnaissance applications are also markets of interest.

Orbital Transport

Orbital Tourism
On April 28, 2001 Dennis Tito became the first person to pay his own way into space. This essentially made him the first true space tourist (as opposed to some politicians and a journalist. Helen Sharman won her trip because she of her science background.) The payment is often reported as $20M but has been rumored to be as low as $12M.

Arrangements for the flight originally started with the Mir-Corp organization but eventually switched over to Space Adventures. The latter company has since then arranged for three other people to pay for such trips. (Following the Columbia disaster, there was a long moratorium on such visits by non-professional astronauts.)

NASA's Commercial Orbital Transport System (COTS) Demonstration
[Under construction...]

Other NewSpace businesses


Further Resources

 

Pioneers of NewSpace

 

 

 

The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey
NewSpace Watch at NSG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
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