Most people are familiar with Scaled Composite's X-Prize $10 million victory with SpaceShipOne, the first private reusable multi-flight manned spacecraft to succeed. But note 'first'-- they were not the only competitor. Just the first tick on the space race radar.
Earlier, Bigelow Aerospace had put not one but two inflatable space stations into orbit now. Genesis I (2006) and Genesis II (2007) both flew as functioning scale prototypes.
And now, Armadillo Aerospace is a million dollars richer. They've built, tested, and won a prize with their Lunar Lander (no, not the arcade game) prototype. Here's a clip of their second flight:
As aircraft porn, it's great to watch. You can see the nozzle swiveling to maintain position, and it looks almost like a video game CGI in how stable and smoothly it travels. But it's real, and gets us one step closer towards where we should be in space.
Officially, it was the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Level 2, and they won on Sept 13. There's a good summary by Rob Goldsmith over at SpaceFellowship.com. There are more prizes and more competitors, with more to come.
But why does this matter? The answer is that all the pieces for getting individuals and industry into space are finally being created. And for millions, not billions.
In the US, both NASA and (at ten times its budget) the Department of Defense (DoD) have been commodifying space technology. It's worth nothing that just the DoD's space budget is larger than NASA's entire budget (source, OMB). And yes, NASA isn't just space-- NASA also works on aircraft, ground research, and Earth science. Still, between the two of them, there's been a lot of space research.
Certainly the current wave of private ventures couldn't have succeeded without the basic research funded by those two entities. Both NASA and DoD money goes primarily to contractors, which means government funded engineering research by private firms with the hopes of improving American industry. But that still requires private firms to step up and invest some of their own time and cash into things.
Now, with the various prizes and the millionaire-sponsored ventures and the wacky sky-eyed visionaries leaping into the fray, we are reawakening the promise of Apollo. The people competing in these new contests are those of us who grew up in the wake of the 70s, only to watch as space travel worldwide lost its steam.
Make no mistake, we're still launching huge numbers of commercial satellites, and there's the ISS space station to brag about. But the more industrial, Heinlein-eseque dream of getting working stiffs into space to build a new frontier? That evaporated.
We face two likely futures. In one, NASA and DoD continue to be the primary avenue to space. But with an unclear path and political will failing, many suspect that China and perhaps India will quickly take the lead in space exploration. But while defense agencies have some leeway, civilian programs like NASA have to be risk-adverse. Coverage of the Augustine Report at Popular Mechanics looks at "what happens when we take the risk out of space travel". Answer: not good.
In the second path, a bunch of plucky entrepreneurs who made good during the dotcom era and in conventional business decide to get us to space themselves, step by step. It's worth nothing that there isn't a large private space industry in China or India, and the Russian industry is primarily a legacy of their previous state-sponsored ventures. So this individual drive is a uniquely American possibility.
It's government versus private industry in, not a race, but a competition to see which method will best get us off Earth. The various world governments have to keep funding their efforts, as that provides the bedrock for any commercial ventures. The risky stuff and the cheap stuff, that may very well come from those who have nothing to lose but their time, money, and lives.
In the 70s and 80s, we thought we'd be given space. Now, it turns out, we have to earn it.
Alex, the Daytime Astronomer
Read about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries!