Part 2 Space Organizations: U.S. Military, Foreign, and Private - Private Space Organizations
society company rocket planetary
Private space organizations have played a major role in advancing space exploration. As far back as the 1920s groups of scientists, hobbyists, and other enthusiasts were gathering together to share their passion for rocket science and space travel. Many of the early groups were absorbed by government and military space organizations or evolved into aerospace manufacturing businesses. Private groups continue to advance spaceflight by researching and developing new technologies, operating commercial space enterprises, promoting public interest in space, and influencing government decisions on the future of spaceflight.
During the 1990s new avenues arose for private parties to participate in space endeavors. The Russian government allowed high-paying "space tourists" to travel to the International Space Station for brief stays. The first non-governmental launch facilities were developed for commercial satellites.
In 2004 a major milestone was achieved in space exploration—the first manned spacecraft developed and launched by a commercial enterprise traveled into space. This opens a whole new realm of space travel opportunities to private citizens.
Early European Organizations
One of the first private space organizations was a German group called Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR), or Society for Spaceship Travel. The VfR was formed in July 1927 in Berlin by a group of scientists and authors interested in rocket research. In particular, they wanted to raise money to finance rocket experiments being conducted by Professor Hermann Oberth (1894–1989) at the University of Munich. During the early 1930s the group sponsored rocket research projects around Germany. The VfR included many famous members, including Wernher von Braun. The group disbanded in 1933 as the Nazi Party gained power in Germany.
The 1930s witnessed the formation of private space organizations throughout western and eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union there was Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya (Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). Sergei Korolev was one of its founding members. He went on to become the chief designer of the Soviet space program. The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was founded in October 1933. This group of scientists and intellectuals is credited with advancing many important theories used in spaceflight, including a design for a lunar landing vehicle that was incorporated into the Apollo Program. As of 2006 the BIS was very active and published several influential journals.
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
In April 1930 a group of American scientists, engineers, and writers interested in space exploration formed the American Interplanetary Society. The founders included G. Edward Pendray (1901–87; inventor of the time capsule), David Lasser (1902–96; an engineer and technical writer who advocated space travel) and Laurence Manning (1899–1972; a science fiction writer). In 1934 the name of the group was changed to the American Rocket Society (ARS). By this time the members were predominantly rocket scientists who specialized in the research, design, and testing of liquid-fuelled rockets. The American Rocket Society featured many prominent members including Robert Goddard (1892–1945), whose theories and experiments were instrumental in the development of rocket science during the early twentieth century.
During World War II several ARS members started a company called Reaction Motors, Inc., to support the war effort. The company later developed rocket engines used in the famous X-series planes. Over the decades, the company evolved into ATK Thiokol Propulsion, the manufacturer of the space shuttle's rockets.
In 1932 a group of American aeronautical engineers and scientists formed the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. The name was later changed to the Institute of Aerospace Sciences (IAS). Although originally focused on Earth-bound aviation, the IAS grew increasingly interested in spaceflight. In 1963 the IAS merged with the ARS to become the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
As of 2006 the AIAA had more than 31,000 members and was the largest professional society in the world devoted to aviation and spaceflight. Its stated purpose is "to advance the arts, sciences, and technology of aeronautics and astronautics and to promote the professionalism of those engaged in these pursuits." The AIAA has published hundreds of books and hundreds of thousands of technical papers throughout its history.
The Planetary Society
The Planetary Society is a nonprofit space advocacy group based in Pasadena, California, that is funded by donations from its members. It was founded in 1980 by scientists Carl Sagan (1934–96), Bruce Murray (1931–), and Louis Friedman (1940–).
Its stated purpose is as follows: "The Planetary Society creates ways for the public to have active roles in space exploration. We develop innovative technologies, like the first solar sail spacecraft, we fund astronomers hunting for hazardous asteroids and planets orbiting other stars, we support radio and optical searches for extraterrestrial life, and we influence decision makers." The Society claims to be the largest space interest group on Earth. It operates an educational Web site: http://www.planetary.org/home/.
The Planetary Society funds projects that support its goals and educate the public about space travel. It also encourages its members and the public to contact government leaders regarding space exploration projects. During the 1980s the Society waged a campaign to encourage the U.S. Congress to restore funding for NASA's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. In the early 1990s the battle was over NASA's planned postponement of the Mars Observer mission. In late 2003 and early 2004 Planetary Society members sent more than 10,000 postcards to Congressional leaders to protest funding cuts for NASA's planned mission to Pluto. According to the Planetary Society, all three of these campaigns were successful in that government funding was restored to the projects.
In 1999 the Society started the SETI@home project in which private citizens could allow their home computers to be used to analyze data recorded by a giant radio telescope as part of SETI. NASA operated a SETI program for a short time in the early 1990s, but it was cancelled due to lack of funding. By the time the SETI@home project ended in December 2005, more than five million people had participated. The project was turned over to the University of California at Berkeley, which plans to continue it under the Berkeley Online Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).
In the early 2000s the organization launched an extensive project called Red Rover Goes to Mars, to coincide with NASA's Mars Exploration missions. The project included an essay contest for students that resulted in the names used for the Mars Rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. The contest was sponsored by the Planetary Society and the Lego toy company.
The two also funded creation of DVDs that were mounted to the Rovers for the missions. The DVDs were specially crafted out of silica glass (instead of plastic) and contain the names of nearly four million people who asked NASA to be listed. Each DVD surface features a drawing of an "astrobot" saying "Hello" to Mars. The spacecraft safely landed on Mars in January 2004. Photos transmitted to NASA by the rovers after landing showed that the DVDs survived the journey. The Rovers are designed to remain on Mars and not return to Earth.
Other components of the Red Rover Goes to Mars project included a contest in which the winning students visited mission control during the Mars missions and a classroom project in which students built models of the Mars Rover and the Martian landscape.
On June 21, 2005, the Planetary Society launched its first spacecraft, Cosmos 1—on a mission to test a solar sail in orbit around Earth. A solar sail is a novel technology that could power spaceflight in the future. It is composed of giant ultra-thin silvery blades that unfurl after launch to reflect sunlight. The electromagnetic radiation of sunlight exerts force on the objects upon which it shines. This force is fairly strong in outer space due to the absence of atmospheric friction, and it could potentially push a solar sail in much the same way that the wind pushes sailing ships on the Earth's oceans.
Cosmos-1 was built in Russia with funding and technical support from the Planetary Society. Each blade of the solar sail was forty-seven feet long. The sail was to be launched by the Russian Navy from a submarine. The mission was cosponsored by the media company Cosmos Studios through a contract with the Russian Space Agency. It was the first space mission ever funded by a private space interest organization.
Unfortunately Cosmos-1 was lost soon after launch when its Russian-supplied Volna rocket failed to fire properly. The Planetary Society hopes to raise the money needed to fund a second solar sail.
Other programs being funded by the Planetary Society as of 2006 include an exosolar planet search and the Gene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object Grant Program. Exosolar planets are planets lying outside of our solar system. Searches are conducted by a robotically controlled telescope at the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. The Planetary Society also provides grants to private observers around the world who help track small asteroids orbiting near the Earth.
Commercial enterprises have played an important role in space exploration through the decades. Government and military space programs would not have been possible without the contributions of labor and technology from companies in the aerospace business and related fields. Communication corporations were among the first to see the potential of satellites to grow and revolutionize their businesses. Demand for satellite launches from the commercial sector helped fund and drive many advances in rocket science and launch technology.
For decades satellites could only be launched at state-operated facilities. The 1990s witnessed the birth of commercial satellite launching organizations in several countries. One of the most unusual is called Sea Launch Company, LLC. The company formed in 1995 and included U.S., Russian, Ukrainian, and Norwegian companies engaged in the aerospace business. The consortium modified an ocean oil-drilling platform into a rocket launch platform and placed it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean along the equator. Since the first successful launch in 1999, more than a dozen commercial satellites have been put into orbit from the sea-based facility.
The 1990s also witnessed the first space tourists. The Soviet (and later Russian) space agency allowed private citizens to visit the Mir space station and the ISS for fees ranging from $15 to $30 million per tourist. Some of the trips were arranged through a private U.S. company called Space Adventures, Ltd. Formed in 1998 by aerospace engineer Peter Diamandis (1961–), the company offers customers opportunities in space tourism and related entertainment areas, such as "zero gravity" experiences. The demand by private citizens for space travel is expected to grow substantially during the twenty-first century.
A New Way to Explore Space—Commercial Suborbital Flights
In 2004 a major milestone in space exploration was achieved when the first nongovernmental manned spacecraft traveled to space and back. The spacecraft was called SpaceShipOne, and it was funded by private investor Paul G. Allen (1953–), cofounder of the Microsoft Corporation. In 2001 Allen contracted a California design firm called Scaled Composites to develop a reusable space vehicle capable of carrying at least one passenger to sub-orbital space. Aside from re-engaging the public's interest and passion in space exploration, Allen and SpaceShipOne set out to win the Ansari X Prize. This prize was offered by a group of private investors called the X Prize Foundation, created by Peter Diamandis. The Ansari family was the prime funder of the $10 million prize, which was available to any nongovernmental group that could achieve the following:
- Build a spaceship and fly three people (or at least one person plus the equivalent weight of two people) into space (defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers or 62.14 miles)
- Return safely to Earth
- Repeat the feat with the same spaceship within two weeks
On June 21, 2004, test pilot Mike Melvill (1941–) of Scaled Composites became the first person to pilot a privately built plane into space when he took SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 62.2 miles during a test flight. On September 29, 2004, he achieved an altitude of 63.9 miles. Only five days later pilot Brian Binnie (1953–) took the same plane to an altitude of 69.6 miles to win the Ansari X Prize.
The flights were conducted from an airstrip in Mojave, California. A carrier plane called White Knight carried SpaceShipOne to an altitude of approximately 47,000 feet and released it. A rocket motor aboard the spaceship was fired to propel it vertically into space. The pilots experienced about three minutes of weightlessness at the height of their journeys. During reentry the wings of SpaceShipOne were maneuvered to provide maximum drag and slow its descent. The spacecraft was glided back to the airstrip and landed like a plane. The flight sequence is shown in Figure 3.6.
The White Knight was a manned twin-turbojet carrier aircraft designed to fly to high altitudes carrying a payload of up to 8,000 pounds. It was named after two U.S. Air Force pilots (Robert White and William "Pete" Knight) who earned their astronaut wings flying the experimental X-15 aircraft during the early 1960s.
SpaceShipOne used a unique hybrid rocket motor fueled by liquid nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and solid hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB, a major constituent of the rubber used in tires). The individual fuel components are nontoxic and are not hazardous to transport or store. They do not react when mixed together unless a flame is supplied. In SpaceShipOne the nitrous oxide was gasified prior to combustion.
In July 2005 Burt Rutan (1943–; president of Scaled Composites) and Sir Richard Branson (1950–; founder of the Virgin Group) announced the formation of a new aerospace production company called The Spaceship Company. Using original technology licensed from Allen, the company plans to build a small fleet of spacecraft based on the designs of the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. In 2004 Branson created Virgin Galactic, which bills itself as the world's first commercial spaceline. Virgin Galactic signed an agreement to become the first "launch customer" for The Spaceship Company aircraft.
Virgin Galactic plans to sell sub-orbital spaceflights to tourists for approximately $200,000 per flight. In December 2005 the company announced its agreement with the State of New Mexico to build a spaceport near the White Sands Missile Range. The company intends to begin commercial spaceflights from an airstrip in Mojave, California, in 2008 and switch its operations to the New Mexico site in 2009 or 2010, when the spaceport is complete.
According to an MSNBC news report (Alan Boyle, "Virgin Unveils Space Plans for New Mexico," December 13, 2005), Virgin Galactic has already registered more than 38,000 people interested in taking a spaceflight, and nearly 100 people have pledged to pay the full fare upfront to be among the first to fly. The article notes that several other companies have plans to develop and launch commercial spacecraft.