When we think about space exploration, most of us instinctively call to mind white-suited astronauts stepping out onto launch-pads; a flag stitched to their left shoulder, a space agency emblem splashed across their chests. As of 2015, 70 governments around the world boasted a space programme. Six of those are equipped with full launch capabilities, sending rockets, satellites and probes into orbit. At the present time, only three are capable of human spaceflight.

At the turn of the millennium, entrepreneurs began to fight back against government monopolies on space. They began designing, and a decade later deploying, their own competitive space systems.

Working on the mission to Mars

Already trailing a list of world-firsts, Elon Musk’s SpaceX this February revealed an ambitious proposal to return to the moon. Since launching the first privately funded, liquid-propelled rocket into orbit in 2008, the company has enjoyed a series of successes, even flying supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Earlier this year, the company announced its plan to send a privately crewed Dragon spacecraft on a trip around the moon, as soon as 2018. The private lunar mission would see humans return to deep space for the first time in 45 years.

The Dragon mission will blast two people out of the atmosphere, carried on SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy rocket. The Crew Dragon spacecraft will sit in the nose of the rocket, protected by an outer shell. When the rocket reaches the correct height, the shell will open up and release the spacecraft.

Musk and his team also have a dream of seeing humans colonise Mars, and are determined to escape from Earth’s gravitational pull. Adding yet another feather to their cap, SpaceX last month made history, with the world’s first successful launch and recovery of a reused orbital class rocket.

Blasting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre on 30 March 2017, the recycled Falcon 9 safely sent a communications satellite on its journey into orbit.  The rocket booster’s main section, which launched for the first time in April last year, then detached from the payload, touching down minutes later onto the deck of SpaceX’s drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’.

Sub-orbital space tourism

Joining Musk in the private space race is British business tycoon Richard Branson, with his space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Unlike SpaceX and their voyage to the moon, Branson has instead set his sights on sub-orbital flight, blasting space tourists through the atmosphere for a brief glimpse at life beyond gravity.

Shunning the traditional rocket launch, Virgin Galactic intends to air launch passengers from beneath a carrier plane, before the space crafts’ rocket boosters punch them up and out into space. Branson has hinted that the company’s first sub-orbital spaceflight could even take place later this year.

Last month, Branson added another string to his space-aimed bow, announcing the formation of a new aerospace company; Virgin Orbit. While Virgin Galactic will continue to provide commercial human spaceflight services, and The Spaceship Company manufactures their vehicles, Virgin Orbit plans to provide affordable launches for small satellites.

The new company will see the development of LauncherOne, an orbital launch vehicle designed to carry small satellite payloads, weighing just 200kg, into orbit around the Earth. Like Virgin Galactic missions, LauncherOne will escape Earth by air launching from a carrier aircraft.

ISS: The inflatable space station?

Also in the running to commercialise space is American space technology company, Bigelow Aerospace. Founded by hotelier and entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, they have dreams of one day creating the universe’s first interstellar hotel.

In its bid to develop space tourism, the company has landed on an innovative solution to building in microgravity, designing a series of expandable habitats. Currently in development is the Next-Generation Commercial Space Station; a private, orbital space complex.

Packing down small to fit into the payloads of regular launch vehicles, Bigelow hopes his inflating modules could make space stations lighter, cheaper and more spacious. With a durable, multi-layer ‘skin’, the soft modules could even offer greater protection against space debris than the rigid skin of the International Space Station.

With two ‘Genesis’ modules successfully launched, orbited and then retired, Bigelow began work on BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. Measuring 16m3, BEAM was designed and built under contract from NASA, taking to the skies to join the International Space Station in April 2016. Once in orbit, it was installed onto the station’s Tranquillity node and after a sticky start, was inflated to its normal, operating pressure.

Over the next two years, BEAM will be rigorously tested, with astronauts popping open the hatch around 67 times a year to check the module out. Once its trial is up, BEAM will be detached from the ISS and jettisoned, burning up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

While private companies funding their own space exploration is a fantastic way of driving innovation, the benefits look like they are to be enjoyed by only the super-rich. With a spot on Branson’s six-seater VSS Unity costing around $250,000, and an estimate of $70 million for one of Musk’s trips around the moon, an adventure in space is still a long way off for the majority of us.

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