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Trends In The Space Industry

The space industry is changing. Less and less a nationalized program, in any given country, and more and more a private business frontier – even the biggest of the government-side giants are looking to finance and ensure that commercial efforts succeeds. The reason: access to space takes money, and the private sector is coming up with it faster than government agencies.

As worldwide economic troubles shift part of the emphasis away from federal spending on space-based projects, the private sector is seeing opportunity to fill the gap.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office contains plenty of predictions that this is the direction in which the industry will continue to go.

Evidence for a Canadian thrust toward commercial lifters can be found in projects such as the Spaceport Canada project and in commercial companies’ apparent interest in putting passengers into suborbital space from Canadian soil as well.

Looking at that kind of data, here’s a breakdown of some of the more prevalent trends, as of 2011.

Space Tourism
The payload-lifting business isn’t going anywhere, but the interest in carrying humans into orbit is growing on the private-sector side.

A May 2011 report out of the U.S. shows that one key trend in the space industry is toward tourism. Companies and governments are aiming to build spaceports, to develop the kind of economic incentives that attract spaceports to their turf.

The idea is that commercial space tourism is going to make someone a lot of money, and having the launch pads for the vehicles that will comprise the first fleet of orbital people-carriers ensures that some of that cash comes their way.

Regulatory agencies are also responding to the anticipated demand for more space-bound traffic by building out their infrastructure, drafting the rules needed to ensure that different kinds of commercial vehicles — airplanes and spacecraft, in this case — can coexist in the same sky.

In North America, there is one commercial spaceport project in Canada — Spaceport Canada, on Hudson Bay — and eight in the United States. Projects underway, as of 2011, include those in Hawaii, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that the first commercial passenger-bearing suborbital flights — meaning flights that enter space but return to Earth before orbiting — will be operational by 2014. Companies such as PlanetSpace have developed plans to put the suborbital Silver Dart craft onto Canadian sites as well, lifting passengers into zero-G for about four and a half minutes of a 15-minute flight. The anticipated price tag for the experience: about $250,000.

Commercial Payload Flights
It’s not just people that the private sector seems poised to carry into space with increasing regularity. Putting needed materials into orbit is an activity that experts also see gravitating to the commercial launch pad.

In recent years, the number of commercial launches — massively expensive, it must be noted — have generally declined, but a rebound is expected. Satellite Spotlight noted, in November 2011, the burgeoning needs of businesses that rely upon orbital transponders. From the companies that connect cell towers to wired phone networks, to consumer broadband Internet services, to other kinds of data and mobile telephony, these businesses stand to drive increased interest in seeing that commercial space lifters — preferably carrying more transponders into the atmosphere — are financed to succeed.

NASA Missions on Commercial Spacecraft
The U.S. government’s space program is also expected to look to the commercial craft for near-future missions to the International Space Station. To do that, the agency is investing in the companies that are building the equipment it may eventually want to use: in 2010, according to the U.S. GAO, NASA gave more than $50 million to private craft and related-equipment development businesses.

All of this means that regulatory agencies will have their hands full in coming years, working to implement space-travel safety and impose the checks and balances meant to protect not only passengers and crew, but also the uninvolved public against the eventuality that something goes wrong during a flight.

And that means air-traffic safety is another industry potentially set to expand. Spaceflight corridors, from ground to orbit, and the tools to manage them in tandem with ongoing aircraft flight-patterns, these are also challenges that stand to create business for technology makers, at least for those who are steering their efforts toward the future of the space industry.

James O’Brien is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Consumer Chronicle, and Boston University’s Research magazine. James blogs via Contently.com.

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