Beyond the Earth

2001 - 2016: Private industry enters space, and mankind's gaze looks beyond the moon

The 21st Century has arrived. Mankind continues to send probes around the solar system and run missions to the ISS, adding components. February of 2001 saw the 100th space walk for America, with the Destiny module installed in position, adding laboratory facilities, and slowly expanding the station further. However, interest amongst the general global populous waned in the intervening years. With nothing like the Apollo missions to fire the imagination of the public, people had begun to view the ongoing mission of space exploration as just part and parcel of everyday life. A few still had imaginations fired by the promise of the stars though, and thus in April the world got it's first space tourist, American engineer and multimillionaire Dennis Tito. Launched into space with a Russian crew after being turned down by NASA, Tito spent 7 days, 22 hours and 4 minutes in space, performing scientific testing as part of the crew of the Soyuz TM-32 mission.

Whilst this was a controversial move, it marked a significant milestone in the history of spaceflight - what had previously been only in the realm of governments and the lucky chosen few who had "The Right Stuff", was now starting to become something that private businesses could conceivably get involved with. The starting gun had fired a few years earlier, and now wheels were in motion that would lead to a renewed interest in space.

The X Factor

The Ansari X Prize was first set up in 1996. In 1919, the Orteig Prize was created, offering a $25,000 reward put up by hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris. The prize would be won by Charles Lindbergh, in the modified single-engined Spirit of St. Louis. Now others looked to that challenge as inspiration. An idea is spawned, and Peter Diamandis offers a $10 million reward for the first non-government entity to to launch a reusable manned three-passenger vehicle into space twice in under a fortnight. The concept sparked interest, and teams start to be put together to answer the call.

One team put together was Mojave Aerospace Ventures, founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aerospace engineer and founder of Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan. Rutan is a maverick, designing outlandish-looking machines, notable for their light weight and efficiency. They come up with the concept for Scaled Composites model 316, which will become known as SpaceShipOne. It's goals are simple:

  • Carry a crew of three in a pressurised cabin
  • Use a rocket to travel from 15km (9.3 miles) to above the Kármán line, 100 km (62 miles) up, considered the boundary between space and the Earth's atmosphere
  • Reenter the atmosphere and glide back to ground
  • Land on a normal runway

The craft is designed to be lifted to an initial height by a second craft named White Knight, which carries it to the initial 15km height, before detaching and igniting the rockets. It's a novel design, and looks nothing like anything built to travel to space before it.

SpaceShipOne at takeoff
SpaceShipOne on its final take-off
SpaceShipOne landing
SpaceShipOne returning to land

Elsewhere, in 2000, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos incorporates the company Blue Origin, but keeps it a closely guarded secret. Finally, in 2002, Elon Musk, formally of PayPal, grows frustrated with his attempts to buy Russian ICBMs with the aim of starting a company with interest in space, and so creates SpaceX.

However, whilst the public may have grown complacent, everyone was about to get a stark reminder as to just how incredibly dangerous and difficult space travel is.


January 16th 2003. Columbia sits on the pad ready to ignite its engines and solid rocket boosters to take it to space. Its engines fire up, the bolts holding it down are blown, and the 113th Shuttle launch begins. However, at 82 seconds after launch, a large piece of foam breaks away from the huge external tank. The foam thumps into the left wing, blowing a hole in it. This isn't noticed by anyone on the ground at the time though, and when it's found during review, it'll be considered non-hazardous.

The Shuttle carries on on its way to space, and the crew performs their mission. Everything goes relatively smoothly, and around two weeks later, on February 1st, the crew begins re-entry. The hole which had been opened on launch now began to heat up as the Shuttle plunged into the atmosphere at around 25 times the speed of sound. The heat on the leading edges of the wings rose to a maximum temperature around 3,000 °F (1,650 °C). The hole began to rupture further. At 9:00, around 16 minutes into re-entry, the craft tore itself apart, exploding in the morning sky, with the loss of all seven crew members.

In the aftermath, Space Shuttle flights were suspended for more than two years. The ISS had to rely entirely on Russian resupply missions for a total of 29 months. Although it would fly again, the Shuttle was now on borrowed time.

A Prize is Won

The X prize continues to heat up. More than two dozen groups are competing, some with more success than others. In October of 2003, China sent Yang Liwei, it's country's first astronaut into space using a Long March 2F rocket and the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. That year also saw the first interest in Blue Origin, when Bezos becomes unable to hide it any longer after beginning to buying land in Texas.

At Scaled Composites, work and testing was going well on both the White Knight mothership and SpaceShipOne itself. White Knight has successfully flown a year earlier, and the program was made public in April, just prior to its first test in May. As the year progresses, further tests see the team advance further, leading to a powered test on December 17.

It's the following year, 2004, that sees the next major advances. First, in January, NASA landed the twin craft Spirit and Opportunity on Mars, beginning what will be the longest exploration of the red planet to date.

Spirit would work until 2010, whilst Opportunity is still working today. Between their to-date 18 years of operational time, they would send back huge amounts of data, expanding our knowledge of our favourite neighbour.

Of equal importance though were the events of June, with SpaceShipOne flight 15P, when the SpaceShipOne craft first successfully reaches space, crossing the Kármán line by 124 meters, and therefore travelling to space for around 10 seconds. Two further flights, designed to complete the X Prize challenge followed on September 19th, and again on October 4th, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch.

With the two flights in less than two weeks, the company had claimed their prize, and the list of space firsts had a new entry: the first private manned spaceflight, in a reusable craft.

The Privateer Rockets

After almost two and a half years of grounding following Columbia, the Space Shuttle was finally returned to flight status. Except for one final mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, its missions would now be flown only to the ISS, allowing a potential safe haven in case of damage to the orbiter. It was no longer trusted. Nevertheless, at the end of 2005, with the addition of an external stowage platform (named ESP-2), ISS had its 15th component.

At SpaceX, the team had been busy developing their first rocket, Falcon 1. Preparations were underway for the first test. In March 2006, they attempted their first launch. However, a fuel line leak and subsequent fire meant that it was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the team discovered the cause of the fault, rectified it and continued to improve the software behind the machine's systems. A year later they tried again. This time, the system worked, and it paved the way for the first orbital flight a year later, in September of 2008. This marked the first time that a privately funded liquid fueled rocket had managed to reach orbit, and the true start of the private era for space operations. In less than six years, the company had managed to make a rocket capable of orbital travel.

Elon Musk's company needed to start paying its way though. Having demonstrated their capability, the massive funds he'd invested started to pay off. In December that same year, NASA awarded a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to SpaceX, with a minimum value of $1.6 billion. The gamble had paid off in spades. The contract required that SpaceX fly 12 flights to the ISS, carrying a total of 20 tonnes of resupply cargo. That would need something bigger than Falcon 1 though. Fortunately, Musk's team had been working on a second generation rocket, the Falcon 9. Much larger, and capable of lifting far greater payloads, it was just what was needed.

Powered by nine SpaceX designed Merlin 1C engines, generating in total substantially less than a single Saturn V engine, it was nonetheless powerful enough to fulfil the contract. All they had to do now was make it fly. It took its maiden flight after significant testing on June 4, 2010, taking to space for the first time and successfully placing a test payload in orbit. Having managed to prove the craft worked, they next had to prove they could put something of similar size and weight to a NASA payload in orbit. For that, they placed their prototype module, named Dragon, atop the Falcon 9, and launched in December.

It was another success. With two near perfect launches, the company had proven not only the Falcon 9 rocket, but also it's Dragon spacecraft.

However, whilst one spacecraft was just taking to the skies, another was about to fly for the final time. 2011 saw the final flight of the Space Shuttle. The vessels, which had only been intended to fly for 15 years, had instead flown for twice that, totalling 135 missions, lasting for a cumulative total of 3 years, 226 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds. Discovery was the first to retire, landing for the final time in March, followed by Endeavour in June and finally Atlantis in July. With its final flight, NASA retired many of those who'd spent careers working on and tending to the craft that had become so iconic in their history. With their retirement, only Russia and potentially SpaceX had the capability to send craft to resupply the ISS. The American government, which had for so long lead the world in space exploration, now in part bowed out.

Back with SpaceX, the design of Falcon 9 underwent constant refinement. A second demonstration flight was conducted in 2012, which also worked, and paved the way for SpX-1 - the first commercial resupply mission. For the first time, they were ready to prove the faith NASA had placed in them was justified. On the 8th of October 2012, at shortly after midnight UTC, a Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon spacecraft blasted off into the night sky. 70 seconds later, it passed the speed of sound, and continued to accelerate. One minute 20 seconds later, it was travelling ten times that speed, and heading in to space. Shortly after, it did what it had been designed to do, and put Dragon in to orbit, chasing down the ISS.

Two days later, having thundered around the planet over and over again as it closed the gap, the ISS team reached out with the huge vessel's robotic arm, grabbing the Dragon capsule and pulling it in. It successfully docked, bringing with it almost a tonne of supplies, and allowing the same amount to be returned. The first commercial resupply flight to ISS had been performed.

Planetary Exploration and the Future

Later that year, NASA's next Mars rover, named Curiousity landed. The tradition of insane-looking landings continued. The most advanced rover landed on the planet to date, it is designed to investigate the Martian climate further, learn about its geology, discover whether the planet may have held environmental conditions which could have supported basic forms of life, study the feasibility of future human exploration. The increasing population of active rovers made some note that it held the amusing distinction of being the only known planet entirely inhabited by robots.

Later that same year, the now elderly Voyager 1, which continued to send signals back to Earth, continued on its long travels and became the first man-made spacecraft to venture out into interstellar space. Having now passed beyond the Solar System, it continued to provide valuable insight as to what lies beyond the reaches of our furthest planets.

If the landing of the Mars rovers seemed challenging however, they were nothing compared to what was coming up next. NASA may not have being flying to the ISS, but machines launched years earlier were now starting to close in on their mission objectives. November of 2014 saw mankind for the first time land on a comet. The Rosetta spacecraft, launched in 2004, ten years later in November of 2014 reached comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It then detached its lander, named Philae, and the two began their series of experiments. Less than a year later, in July of 2015, NASA managed another first, with New Horizons providing the first close-up look at Pluto and it's moon, Charon.

Launched in 2005, it left Earth at 58,000 km/h (36,000 mph), faster than any other spacecraft. Again, a decade passed, and in July 2015, having travelled for millions of miles, it finally arrived. At such a distance, 4.5 light-hours in total, transmission of data is incredibly slow. As a result, to receive all the data it collected during the Pluto system flyby would require almost a year and a half. It will now continue out further, to examine objects beyond in the Kuiper belt; a vast ring of asteroids on the outer edge of our Solar System.

Somewhat closer to home though, work continued on the SpaceShipOne design. The company had been been funded further by serious entrepreneur Richard Branson. New engines were designed, and the craft continued to advance. However, as has so often been the case, the price paid for such development would be high, in both money and the human cost. In October of 2014, the test craft VSS Enterprise suffered a catastrophic break-up. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, whilst pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured.

In answering questions shortly after, Branson said:

We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly; to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy. We are going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance and then move forwards together.

Later in the same meeting, he noted...

Space is hard, but worth it.

His words could be said to neatly sum up the thoughts of everyone who's been involved in the space programs around the world.

Elsewhere, history was about to be made again. The Space Shuttle, for all its faults, had proven one thing incontrovertibly - the huge value of a reusable space vehicle. The world had been without that capacity for four years, but November and December of 2015 would bring that period to an end. Quietly working away, conducting their operations without the media fanfare of SpaceX, Blue Origin had been developing their own rocket system, named New Shepherd. On 23rd November, on its second test flight, the oddly shaped rocket took to the skies, crossing the Kármán line and returning to land vertically, making the first landing of a booster rocket flown to space. A third flight on 22 January 2016 marked the first reuse of a reusable booster rocket, less than a month after Falcon 9 also managed a landing, marking the first vertical landing of an orbital-capable rocket.

The era of the the commercial, private space race had arrived.

The Future

Where we go from here, no-one really knows. SpaceX have a stated goal of putting humans on Mars, and starting limited colonisation. Blue Origin have been more abstract and vague with their goals, but they appear to be aiming in a similar direction, with talk of space tourism and exploration, and aiming to put the price down far enough that it would be broadly attainable. Exactly how this will be achieved remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, far above us, the rovers on Mars will continue to do good work for years to come, bringing ever more knowledge about the most likely target for the first human settlement beyond Earth. Elsewhere, other probes will reach to the planets and comets beyond us. The Chinese space program now reaches for the Moon, and if they get there, they would become only the second nation to do so, after more than four or possibly even five decades of our absence.

The ISS meanwhile is due to continue until at least 2024, and in all likelihood on further than that. What may replace it though is still a matter of some debate, although it seems unlikely that the answer will be "nothing". At NASA, work is well underway on the next generation of heavy lift vehicle, called the Space Launch System, or SLS for short. Designed to be upgraded over time, it will likely eventually have the power to conduct interplanetary scale missions. NASA, like SpaceX, have a stated goal of wanting to put people on Mars, with the first planned mission being a lunar orbit in 2018, and sending people to an asteroid to be captured and placed in lunar orbit ten years later.

It's impossible to say what other companies will join this modern era of space exploration, or where it will lead. It seems certain now that at some point we will venture at least as far as Mars. Beyond that, missions to the asteroid belt are certainly far off, although not impossible. One thing's for certain though; whilst today's space missions may not have the fevered rush of excitement that those of the late 60's did, the future for the exploration of our universe is no less vital, and moving faster than ever.