Private businesses for Outer Space

Private businesses for Outer Space. Source: ITAR-TASS

Private businesses for Outer Space. Source: ITAR-TASS

Many experts, including those in Russia, have their doubts that the private space business is relevant for Russia.

There is no doubt that the global business community is once again getting ready to explore new waters; this time, the “new waters” are space. In late autumn, the first privately designed and built automatic cargo spacecraft Dragon, developed by the US company SpaceX, made a successful return flight to the International Space Station, thus christening the private space endeavour. However, many experts, including those in Russia, have their doubts that the private space business is relevant for Russia.

The American who started this trend has been working on private carrier rockets for years and eventually came up with two programmes. The first one is SpaceX’s Dragon; the second is SpaceShip from Virgin Galactic.

The former project envisions the use of privately owned spacecraft to deliver cargoes to the ISS and low-orbit space vehicles. But Dragon carried a limited payload during its first flight, so it is a little premature to talk about commercial benefits.

Dragon will prove much more efficient as a manned spacecraft, however. According to the Skolkovo Foundation’s Space Technologies and Telecommunications Cluster head Dmitry Paison, NASA spends an estimated $60 million to deliver one astronaut to the ISS in a Soyuz transport vehicle, whereas SpaceX promises to reduce the cost to $20 million and still make profits.

The spacecraft designed as part of the second project have a very different objective indeed. The reusable SpaceShipOne shuttle was taken to a 15-kilometre altitude by its mother ship WhiteKnightOne before being accelerated using its own rocket engine and delivered to a 100-kilometre altitude, which can be considered the lower space boundary. The shuttle continued in zero-gravity conditions for a few minutes and then landed like an ordinary plane, ready for its next flight.

Thrill-seekers will be able to take this kind of suborbital flight for $200,000, which is more than a hundred times cheaper than a week’s stay at the ISS with delivery by a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

However, the Russians should exercise caution when adopting the American experience and introducing commercial practices in domestic space exploration. Stephen Attenborough, commercial director for Virgin Galactic, believes that Russia has a more solid state-run space project, which is why private commercial space exploration is irrelevant.

In this context, it would be more appropriate to consider private initiative in the use of the results of space activities. “A characteristic coincidence,” Dmitry Paison reminds us, is that “in 2011, NASA said it would enable private business to service low Earth orbit flights (including the American ISS segment), whereas Roscosmos said in 2012 that it had plans to allow private business to engage in the practical application of the results of space activities.”

Paison mentions projects pursued together with Russian companies. “Some of the Skolkovo companies are advertising space products and services. We should wait a couple of years to see the first projects of this kind, such as the micro-satellite Sputniks programme and the Dauria small-satellite service, as well as the Atmosfera parachute salvage system for rocket stages.”

When it comes to switching to private spacecraft, Roscosmos spokesman Aleksei Kuznetsov believes that it is too early to draw conclusions from the first American flight.

“SpaceX is the first experience of private business in the space sector,” Kuznetsov told the Russian magazine Expert. We need time to understand where exactly this project will stand in space activities, and then we will decide whether it will be applicable in Russian space exploration given our peculiarities and the preparedness of our business for projects of Dragon’s scale. There are businessmen in America who are ready to take risks. As far as I know, Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, incurred serious costs and even had to borrow. I guess he considered this project to be a long-term investment.

It’s not clear whether our business is ready to take such risks or whether it has enough money. Another challenge for Russian private business is the availability of research and industrial potential to carry out projects of this scale.”

Furthermore, it is hard to disagree with Pavel Bykov, deputy editor-in-chief of Expert, who said: “The crisis of global space programmes is perceptible also in Russia, but we have a well-developed system based largely on the outdated Soyuz trechnology; however, it is constantly being updated and modernised. It might not be perfect from the point of view of astronauts and cargo delivery, but is a cheap and reliable system that can work virtually for an unlimited period and remain profitable.”

Private initiative is only clearly visible in Russia when it comes to space tourism; however, Roscosmos’ obsession with sending tourists to the ISS is hardy innovative.

“Space tourism is, unfortunately, a major problem for professionals like us,” says cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, deputy head at Energia Flight Space Centre. “Tourism undermines the very foundation of manned space flights, because we have to replace young cosmonauts with tourists.”

In this context, private initiative in the creation of spacecraft for suborbital tourism cannot come at a better time.

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