Many journalists and others have been much enamored with the activities of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson, and other entrepreneurs who have bet their fortunes, at least some of their fortunes, on the development of new space access vehicles and commercial prospects in Earth orbit and perhaps beyond. For all of their successes, and those deserve proper kudos, there is a history of earlier efforts that deserves to be a part of this larger story to develop space as another realm of ordinary human endeavor.
In response to the Reagan administration’s efforts to open commercial space activities in 1984, with the “Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984” a number of firms arose to fill an apparent need for commercial launch services. The one corporation to survive those early heady years and become a major player in space access was the Orbital Sciences Corporation founded in 1982 by a daring group of under-30 space entrepreneurs led by David Thompson. With an initial investment of only $1,500, the company went on to develop the air-launched Pegasus space access vehicle.
With the Pegasus’s first deployment from a modified L-1011 the firm took off, literally, and by the end of 1990 had grown to over 700 employees and $100 million in annual revenues. It was the first entrepreneurial space company to “go public,” and Orbital/ATK remains a major space launch provider to the present. It is important to remember this as accolades accrue to SpaceX and other entrepreneurial firms for their successes.
Additionally, by the mid-1990s several other start-up companies had been organized to develop new vehicles in response to an envisioned expansive market for space launch services. Indeed, 1996 marked something of a milestone in the history of space access. In that year worldwide commercial revenues in space for the first time surpassed all governmental spending on space, totaling some $77 billion. This growth continued in 1997, with 75 commercial payloads lofted into orbit, and with approximately 75 more military and scientific satellites launched. This represented a threefold increase over the number the year before.
Market surveys for the period thereafter suggested that commercial launches would multiply for the next several years at least: one estimate holding that 1,200 telecommunications satellites would be launched between 1998 and 2007. In that context many space launch advocates believed that the market had matured sufficiently that government investment in launch vehicle development was no longer necessary. Instead, they asked that the Federal government simply “get out of the way” and allow the private sector to pursue development free from bureaucratic controls.
This modern “gold rush” sparked several new corporations to muscle their way into the tight conglomerate of launch vehicle companies. One of the farthest along and best financed of this new breed was Kistler Aerospace Corporation, based in Kirkland, Washington. Seeking low-cost access to space, Kistler employed Russian-built engines as a centerpiece of its K-1 reusable launcher. It was intended to deliver up to 10,000 pounds to orbit, depending on inclination. The first stage of this vehicle would fly back to the launch site; the second would orbit Earth before returning. Both stages would descend by parachute and land on inflatable air bags. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the company was unable to deliver on its plans and eventually folded.
Pioneer, Inc., also worked to develop the Pathfinder rocketplane, an aerial propellant transfer spaceplane that would accommodate a crew of two and deliver a payload of 5,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit (LEO). Additionally, Kelly Space and Technology, Inc., worked on its Astroliner, a reusable spaceplane that was intended to deliver 11,000 pounds to LEO for a cost of $2,000 per pound. Among these various companies the most interesting concept, albeit one that many people believed was doomed to failure from the start, was the Roton rocket built by the Rotary Rocket Company. Roton was intended as a fully reusable, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) space vehicle designed to transport up to 7,000 pounds to and from LEO. Roton planned to enter commercial service in the year 2000 with a target price per flight of $7 million ($1,000 per pound). None of these start-ups survived to fly successful space mission.
Other space launch firms experimented with unique launch approaches, and some have been successful. The Sea Launch Company LLC used a floating mobile platform that could handle launches of heavy vehicles out of its Long Beach, California, facilities. This launch method reduced legal, operational, and infrastructure costs. Since it was mobile it offered equatorial launches in any inclination from a single launch pad, providing maximum efficiency from the launcher.
Established as a partnership between Boeing (USA), Aker ASA (Norway), RSC-Energia (Russia), and SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash (Ukraine) the Sea Launch Company was organized on April 3, 1995. It had the backing of large aerospace firms, and was less entrepreneurial than some of the other corporations that had emerged ear the same time.
Once stood up, Sea Launch constructed its platform and launched its first test payload into orbit on March 27, 1999. Using a jointly produced Zenit-3SL launcher built in the Ukraine, Russia, it flew its first commercial payload on October 9, 1999, a DIRECTV 1-R communications satellite. Since that time Sea Launch has made 36 launches, with three failures and one partial-failure. This system was touted as a major success story in international commercial cooperation for space access, the road for the company has been rocky. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2009, with the Russian backers absorbing most of the stock to keep it afloat. Since then the company has withered.
Despite some successes, only Orbital Sciences and Sea Launch LLC had yielded a new operational space launcher by 2000. With the failure of the Iridium Corporation in spring 2000, a new satellite communications system that many believed would be the vanguard of a rapidly expanding space launch market, investment for space enterprises became even scarcer. In some measure because of this, although they had previously eschewed government investment and the corresponding red tape, many of these start-ups began seeking capital from NASA and the military to support their efforts. Accordingly, it seemed that as the twenty-first century began there was still a pressing need for substantial government investment in space launch R&D. Enter SpaceX and a range of other firms in the early twenty-first century. It’s a story that is far from being complete.