Virgin Orbit CEO says their technology offers 'better economics'
New York (CNN Business)If 2021 was the year of ostentatious displays of wealthy space tourists chartering one-off missions, 2022 promises to be yet another year solidifying the private sector’s grip on modern space travel.
Big businesses are beginning to permeate every area of spaceflight, from the most spectacular private launches to the smallest detail. A modified version of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant will even hitch a ride on a future NASA trip around the moon. More missions to space chartered by the ultra-rich are on the docket. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also planning to put its colossal 400-foot-tall Starship rocket — intended to eventually reach Mars — into Earth’s orbit for the first time.
As in past years, federal regulators will grapple with what its role can and should be in this new era.
Here’s a look at what’s to come.
Starship and the FAA
SpaceX, the poster child of the commercial space era, has been anxious to get a full-scale version of its Starship rocket launched on its first orbital test flight.
The launch would be momentous. Starship promises to out-power any rocket ever built, including the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon in the last century.
(NASA is also launching its own new rocket this year — a test mission for the next lunar landing called Artemis 1 — that will make use of a different rocket that also promises to out-power the Saturn V.)
After a few high-altitude test launches in the first half of 2021 of the upper spaceship, the company has been assembling its first full-scale Starship rocket — complete with a gargantuan rocket booster that promises to propel the spaceship into orbit.
Musk had indicated the company was prepared to get that test flight off the ground as soon as July of last year.
But the back half of 2021 was full of hangups. The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches, was carrying out an environmental assessment to review what the impact would be of launching such a massive rocket from a stretch of rural Texas coastline. A public comment period in October aired the voices of many local residents strongly opposed to the idea, as well as some fervent supporters who weren’t necessarily from the area.
Participants in the public comments were allowed to dial in from anywhere. And while most people spoke in favor of letting the project move forward, the people who identified themselves as living in the vicinity of SpaceX’s South Texas launch site were mostly opposed, according to a tally kept by Joey Roulette, then a reporter at The Verge.
Though SpaceX initially expected to get the all-clear by the end of 2021, according to the FAA, the environmental assessment will continue until at least February 28, 2022.
The agency cited “the high volume of comments submitted” and “discussions and consultation efforts with consulting parties” as reasons for the delay.
Orbital tourism and astronaut launches
With its Starship program in limbo, SpaceX has kept its astronaut launches, conducted in partnership with NASA, pretty much on schedule.
And there’s more to come. The astronauts that launched to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule are set to return as soon as April, with a new crew of four slated to launch aboard their own Dragon capsule to replace them that same month.
With NASA’s blessing, SpaceX is also free to sell flights aboard Dragon to anyone who can afford it. The company plans to do just that, following up its 2021 Inspiration-4 mission with a four-person mission chartered by Houston-based startup Axiom that will take three businessmen and a former astronaut to the International Space Station.
Plans for other SpaceX tourism flights to orbit are also in the works, though firm plans and launch dates haven’t been locked down.
Opportunities for hitching a ride to orbit may also expand this year if Boeing gets its planned Starliner spacecraft up and running.
Boeing was contracted alongside SpaceX to develop a crew-worthy spacecraft, capable of carrying professional astronauts to the ISS and, if the company so pleases, well-heeled tourists. But Boeing has been beleaguered by numerous testing and development hangups. Starliner was most recently taken off the launch pad after issues with its propulsion system were discovered shortly before a scheduled test flight of the vehicle. The company now says the earliest that uncrewed test launch can get off the ground is May of 2022.
Branson, Bezos and suborbital space tourism
Richard Branson’s and Jeff Bezos’ space companies have for years been working to develop spacecraft capable of taking paying customers on brief, supersonic trips to the edge of space. In 2021, both billionaires made their own treks to the edge of space aboard their respective spacecraft.
Both of their flights ended without apparent issue, with the men emerging from their spacecraft outfitted in custom flight suits and beaming for the cameras.
Bezos’ successful July launch catapulted the company into a busy rest of the year spent flying some high-profile figures as “honorary guests” — meaning they didn’t have to pay for tickets. 2022 promises to bring even more activity from the space tourism company, called Blue Origin, though the company has not yet announced flight dates or passengers for the year ahead.
But Virgin Galactic is up against significant delays. A report from the New Yorker revealed that warning lights had gone off in the cockpit during Branson’s flight and the space plane had traveled outside its designated airspace for 41 seconds. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights pending a review, which concluded in September and gave Virgin Galactic the all-clear. Still, the company is delaying the start of commercial services until at least the third quarter of 2022, citing unrelated technology upgrades.
Labor issues already cropping up
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has faced its own controversies, though none that have indicated specific safety issues with its rocket or spacecraft.
Rather, a group of 21 current and former employees co-signed a letter alleging the company operates a toxic work environment where “professional dissent” is “actively stifled.” Blue Origin responded to the claims by saying it has “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind.”
The essay prompted enough concern for the FAA to launch a review. But reporting from CNN Business also revealed that FAA investigators assigned to the task were hamstrung by a lack of legal protections for whistleblowers in the commercial spaceflight industry.
Emails obtained by CNN Business showed the review was closed even though investigators never had the chance to speak with any of the people who anonymously signed the whistleblower essay.
The situation again highlighted the complexity of the commercial space industry’s federally designated “learning period” — a designation that effectively bars regulators from implementing certain new rules or wielding the same oversight powers it does for other industries.
That designation is set to expire in 2023, and the FAA indicated that lawmakers are monitoring the situation and considering a change. The whole thing could also soon become the subject of a Government Accountability Office report. Emails obtained by CNN Business show the GAO reached out to the FAA for more information about its Blue Origin probe.
Meanwhile, the allegations about Blue Origin’s workplace culture — which were echoed in a separate whistleblower essay about SpaceX — has put the commercial space industry under heightened scrutiny.
A big, crowded, empty void
Similar questions about how to regulate outer space in the age of commercialization are playing out on the international stage. With SpaceX and others putting up thousands of satellites for a new space-based businesses, and a recent satellite destruction test carried out by the Russian government — concerns about overcrowding in Earth’s orbit are mounting.
There were numerous recent, high-profile events highlighting the stakes of the problem: SpaceX Starlink satellites nearly collided with the Chinese space station, the International Space Station has had to maneuver out of the path of debris on numerous occasions, and defunct rockets have fallen out of orbit uncontrolled.
Groups within the United Nations have been working for decades to update international treaties governing the use of outer space. So far, they’ve been largely unsuccessful. But the effort is gaining attention once again with a November 1 resolution that created an open-ended working group that will assess “current and future threats to space operations, determine when behavior may be considered irresponsible, ‘make recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors,’ and contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments; — including a treaty to prevent ‘an arms race in space,'” according to a recently published article written by two space policy experts.
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