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SpaceX on Saturday launched two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the accomplishment is a tremendous one for both the company and the U.S. space agency. At a fundamental level, it means that the U.S. will have continued access to the International Space Station, without having to rely on continuing to buy tickets aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do so. But it also means the beginning of a new era for the commercial space industry – one in which private companies and individual buying tickets for passenger trips to space is a consistent and active reality.

With this mission, SpaceX will complete the final step required by NASA to human-rate its Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, which means that it can begin operationally transporting people from Earth essentially as soon as this mission concludes (Crew Dragon still has to rendezvous with the space station tomorrow, and make its way back to Earth with astronauts on board in a few weeks). Already, SpaceX has signed an agreement with Space Adventures, a private space tourism booking company that has previously worked with Roscosmos on sending private astronauts to orbit.

SpaceX wants to start sending up paying tourists on orbital flights (without any ISS stops) starting as early as next year aboard Crew Dragon. The capsule actually supports up to seven passengers per flight, though only four seats will ever be used for official NASA crew delivery missions for the space station. SpaceX hasn’t released pricing on private trips aboard the aircraft, but you can bet they’ll be expensive since a Falcon 9 launch (without a human rated capsule) costs around $ 60 million, and so even dividing that by seven works out to a high price of entry.

So this isn’t the beginning of the era of accessible private spaceflight, but SpaceX is the first private company to actually put people into space, despite a lot of talk and preparatory work by competitors like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. And just like in the private launch business, crossing the gulf between having a private company that talks about doing something, and a company that actually does it, will absolutely transform the space industry all over again.

Here’s how.

Tourism

SpaceX is gearing up to launch tourists as early as next year, as mentioned, and while those tourists will have to be deep-pocketed, as eight everything that SpaceX does, the goal is to continue to find ways to make more aspects of the launch system reusable and reduce costs of launch in order to bring prices down.

Even without driving down costs, SpaceX will have a market, however niche, and one that hasn’t yet really had any inventory to satisfy demand. Space Adventures has flown a few individuals by buying tickets on Soyuz launches, but that hasn’t really been a consistent or sustainable source of commercial human spaceflight, and SpaceX’s system will likely have active support and participation from NASA.

That’s an entirely new revenue stream for SpaceX to add to its commercial cargo launches, along with its eventual launch of commercial internet service via Starlink. It’s hard to say yet what kind of impact that will actually have on their bottom line, but it could be big enough to have an impact – especially if they can figure out creative ways to defray costs over successive years, since each cut will likely considerably expand their small addressable audience.

SpaceX’s impact on the launch business was to effectively create a market for small satellites and more affordable orbital payloads that simply didn’t make any economic sense with larger existing launch craft, most of which were bankrolled almost entirely by and for defence and NASA use. Similarly, it’s hard to predict what the space tourism market will look like in five years, now that a company is actually offering it and flying a human-rated private spacecraft that can make it happen.

Research

Private spacefarers won’t all be tourists – in fact, it could make a lot more financial sense for the majority of passengers to and from orbit to be private scientists and researchers. Basically, imagine a NASA astronaut, but working for a private company rather than a publicly-funded agency.

Astronauts are essentially multidisciplinary scientists, and the bulk of their job is conducing experiments on the ISS. NASA is very eager to expand commercial use of the ISS, and also to eventually replace the aging space station with a private one of which they’re just one of multiple customers. Already, the ISS hosts commercial experiments and cargo, but if companies and institutions can now also send their own researchers as well, that may change considerably how much interest their is in doing work on orbit, especially in areas like biotech where the advantages of low gravity can produce results not possible on Earth.

Cost is a gain a significant limiting factor here, since the price per seat will be – no pun intended – astronomical. But for big pharma and other large companies who already spend a considerable amount on R&D it might actually be within reach. Especially in industries like additive manufacturing, where orbit is an area of immense interest, private space-based labs with actual rotating staff might not be that farfetched an idea.

Marketing & Entertainment

Commercial human spaceflight might actually be a great opportunity to make actual commercials – brands trying to outdo each other by shooting the first promo in space definitely seems like a likely outcome for a Superbowl spot. It’s probably not anyone’s priority just now, given the ongoing global pandemic, but companies have already discussed the potential of marketing partnerships as a key driver of real revenue, including lunar lander startup ispace, which has signed a number of brand partners to fund the build and flight of its hardware.

Single person rides to orbit are definitely within budget for the most extreme marketing efforts out there, and especially early on, there should be plenty of return on that investment just because of how audacious and unique the move is. The novelty will likely wear off, but access to space will remain rarified enough for the forseeable future that it could still be part of more than a few marketing campaigns.

As for entertainment, we’ve already seen the first evidence of interest there – Tom Cruise is working on a project to be filmed at least in part in space, apparently on board the International Space Station. SpaceX is said to be involved in those talks, and it would make a lot of sense for the company to consider a Crew Dragon flight with film crew and actors on board for both shooting, and for transportation to ‘on location’ shoots on the ISS.

Cruise probably isn’t the only one to consider the impact of a space-based motion picture project, and you can bet at least one reality show producer somewhere is already pitching ‘The Bachelor’ in space. Again, it’s not going to be within budget for every new sci-fi project that spins up, but it’s within blockbuster budget range, and that’s another market that grew by 100% just by virtue of the fact that it didn’t exist as a possibility before today.

Novel industry

It’s hard to fully appreciate what kind of impact this will have, because SpaceX has literally taken something that previously wasn’t possible, and made it available – at costs that, while high, aren’t so high as to be absurd. As with every other such expansion, it will likely create new and innovative opportunities that haven’t even been conceived, especially once the economics and availability of flights, etc. are clarified. GPS, another great space-based innovation, formed the bedrock of an industry that changed just about every aspect of human life – private commercial spaceflight could do the same.


TechCrunch

SpaceX is making progress assembling its Starship orbital spacecraft prototype, as seen in new photos shared by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk . This full-scale testing version of the Starship will take over for the StarHopper, which was a scaled down version used to test the Raptor engine initially with low-altitude ‘hop’ flights.

The Starship Mk I Prototype and Mk II prototypes, which are under construction simultaneously at SpaceX facilities in South Texas and Florida, will be used to test flight at higher altitudes and higher speeds, and will use as many as three to six Raptor engines simultaneously, vs. the single engine used with the StarHopper.

The round sections of the prototype you see in the photos being lowered on top of one another measure 9 meters (about 30 feet) in diameter, and unlike the StarHopper, these will feature a smooth curved top section, which you can see in the second photo. Once complete, SpaceX will run a first test of the orbital prototype with the goal of reaching a height of 12 miles, or 63,000 feet, before moving on to higher velocity testing at similar heights, and finally a first orbital flight.

Ultimately, SpaceX’s goal with Starship is have it become the workhorse of all of its commercial operations, replacing entirely the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon Capsule spacecraft and servicing both Earth orbital needs, as well as trips to ferry supplies and astronauts to Mars, and potentially beyond.


TechCrunch

SpaceX is going to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket for only the third time ever tonight, should all go according to the current mission plan. The launch, set to take place during a four-hour launch window that opens at 11:30 PM EDT (8:30 PM PDT) [UPDATE: The launch is now targeting 2:30 AM EDT (11:30 PM PDT), which still falls within the four-hour launch window] tonight, will lift off from Launch Complex 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

On its first-ever nighttime launch, Falcon Heavy’s STP-2 mission will carry a cargo made up of a number of payloads from commercial customers, as well as from the U.S. Department of Defence, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The mission involves putting 24 different spacecraft into orbit, along three separate orbital paths. One of the is an experimental research satellite for the Air Force Research Laboratory, and NASA’s payload includes four different experimental craft, which the agency detailed this month.

It’ll also carry LightSail 2, a crowdfunded spacecraft spearheaded by Bill Nye’s Planetary Society, which will make its way through space using the literal solar wind beneath its massive sail. SpaceX is also re-using Falcon Heavy boosters for the first time, with side boosters used on the Arabsat-6A mission flown in April, and it’ll attempt to recover all three first-stage rockets via landings at Cape Canaveral and aboard its drone landing pad barge.

The launch will be streamed live above, with the feed getting started around 15 minutes prior to scheduled launch window opening.


TechCrunch

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