There was a time when space exploration was the sole domain of government agencies. Over the past few years we have seen an explosion in commercial space firms with SpaceX leading the charge into this exciting new era, often referred to as "New Space". The time of government-only space activity is now behind us, and foundation of the commercial space industry is securely in place. Last year NASA asserted their newly minted role of customer and dolled out the massive $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Contract with $2.6 billion going to SpaceX for the development of the Dragon spacecraft and $4.2 billion going to Boeing for further development of the CST-100 crew transport capsule, a slightly larger version of Boeing's Orion spacecraft. Last year ended with the spectacular inaugural mission of the Orion, which was lifted to orbit by a Delta IV heavy rocket on December 5. Orion successfully tested a variety of capabilities in this first mission including basic spaceflight, re-entry, and recovery.
This was followed on December 23rd by the announcement that NASA had selected four US firms to participate in the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program, which is aimed at leveraging NASA's experience and expertise to expand the private sector space development. These programs are just the beginning of a new space paradigm - one in which the private sector and the government work together to drive our space capabilities forward. Check out the illustration below showing NASA's evolution road-map to Mars.
Investment, Setback and Focus
The space business is not place for short-term day traders and trend-hounds. It is a long term play that requires great vision and persistence. It requires leaders and visionaries who understand the importance of this endeavor, and also its potential rewards. 2014 marked a historic year for investment in space programs. According to the Space Angels Network, 2014 was the third year in a row private space companies saw increased funding from the investment community. This included launch providers, satellites, space resource applications and human spaceflight endeavors. Google dove into the space business with the $500 million acquisition of Skybox, a space-based imaging and insight provider. They followed this up in early 2015 by announcing they would invest $1 billion in SpaceX to support the development of a massive network of low-cost satellites which will deliver internet to the entire planet. NASA leased the historic Moffett Field Hangar to SpaceX subsidiary Planetary Ventures for 60 years for $ 1 billion. Space-based hyperspectral imaging is also moving forward. This is a "folding" technology that allows long term space ventures to develop technology for their own goals and then fold them down to existing business sectors here on Earth. Hyperspectral imaging technology will be used by Planetary Resources to prospect for valuable asteroid resources in deep space. Here on Earth, this same technology will be used for agricultural monitoring, energy and mineral exploration, as well as military and civil government applications. Hyperspectral imaging start-up HySpecIQ awarded a contract to Boeing to develop the company's first earth observation satellites based on the Boeing 502 Phoenix platform. On the Space Agency side, we saw the 2015 NASA budget set to $18 billion. This includes $549 million more than what was requested by President Obama, indicating support for Space Exploration across the isles. The Chinese have their sights set firmly on the moon, while Russia announced a staggering $52 billion investment in their space program, including a possible Russian space station which could rival the International Space Station (ISS). When we look at the combined government and private investments now coming online, you can quickly see why space is going to be a trillion dollar industry.
Space is not a forgiving place. There will always be setbacks and failures in the space industry, and 2014 was no exception. The Orbital Science Corporation Antares Rocket carrying supplies to the ISS exploded shortly after liftoff on October 28, 2014. Later that same week the Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 crashed killing one of the test pilots. We were instantly reminded that space travel is not easy, it is the hardest thing we can do, and yet therein lies its importance. We must continue to move forward if we are going to insure the survival of our species. After the disasters, Orbital Sciences announced they would turn to the United Launch Alliance and the Atlas V rocket to ensure the completion of their future ISS deliveries and Richard Branson reaffirmed he would push forward with Virgin Galactic even after the crash.
All of these developments are part of our journey out into space. Small steps forward amassed over decades are what will take humanity to the stars. Triumphs and tragedy leads to focus, and we are finally beginning to focus on the big problems that must be solved in order for us to take our next evolutionary leap. The dream ignited by the race to the moon is rising again in the public consciousness. The new space industry is driven by discovery and exploration, supported by government, and rooted in sound business plans searching for resources and riches. We are developing the engine that will drive us into the solar system. This engine has many components: investment, engineering, education, competition, capitalism, combined with the thirst for knowledge that makes us who we are. Humanity is finally taking the steps necessary to becoming a spacefaring civilization.