The Rise of Commercial Space Flight and the Private Space Industry

Nowadays it seems like everyone wants to get in on the rapidly-growing commercial space industry, reportedly worth approximately $340 billion per year. From Stratolaunch Systems’ “world’s largest plane, which acts as a launch pad in the sky,” to NASA’s Space Act Agreements (SAA) with Boeing and SpaceX for taxi services to and from the International Space Station (ISS), this is certainly not your parents’ space race.

While the private space industry of today may not have bloomed until after we entered the 21st century, the United States’ love affair with space activities in the private sector can be traced back to the 1960’s, although it was the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984 that really lit a fire under private industry. It goes without saying that a lot has changed in the years between then and now.

As a matter of fact, the private space sector as we know it today has a term all its own: NewSpace.

“Alt.space, NewSpace, entrepreneurial space, and other labels have been used to describe approaches to space development that different significantly from that taken by NASA and the mainstream aerospace industry.”

HobbySpace.com

NewSpace is a move away from the traditional understanding of space being the domain of government agencies alone and a step toward more affordable access to space. This transition has allowed for the incredible growth and expansion of the economic endeavors within the private space sector, and it’s only expected to get bigger and more profitable as time and developments continue to advance.

However, beyond the incredible news stories about “the world’s first commercial Spaceline” and Elon Musk sending his car into space – which you can track here, by the way – there is an entire universe of issues and concerns that do and/or will cause hiccups and delays to entering the first space tourists into orbit.

One of the first concerns that comes to mind is often that of safety. Saying that there are a few safety concerns relating to commercial space transportation would be putting it very, very lightly. Risks and dangers plague every step of the process, from launchpad to landing. I am all for scientific inquiry and experimentation, but unfortunately this is one area where trial and error has a good chance of ending in both the loss of equipment and the loss of life.

Commercial space transportation is still a fairly high-risk industry in terms of safety, and the responsibility to develop safety regulations for the U.S. commercial space transportation industry rests with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). The AST issues licenses and experimental permits for launch or reentry vehicles and spaceports after the issuance of a safety approval.

According to the AST website, the FAA “has the authority to issue a safety approval for one or more of the following safety elements: a launch vehicle, a reentry vehicle, a safety system, process, service, or any identified component thereof, and qualified and trained personnel performing a process or function related to licensed launch activities.”

I will stop myself here (for now), but this is just a drop in the bucket. There are plenty of topics surrounding commercial space flight that this post didn’t discuss, such as issues with funding, the minefield that is space debris, and the question of whose law governs in space. While this may seem like a lot, be reassured by the fact that this means we all may have the chance to live out that childhood (adulthood) dream of being an astronaut.