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Private space race


NASA announced in August that it was narrowing to three the private companies tasked with building and operating manned spacecraft. They are Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Boeing. SpaceX have successfully flown the unmanned Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station and recovered it.  SNC are developing the Dream Chaser, a manned lifting body orbital vehicle, while Boeing already have the secret X37B unmanned military spaceplane.  The latter is launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket, protected by a nose fairing.  It resembles the Space Shuttle, though is only a quarter of the size and in controlled automatically from the ground.  In this it resembles the Russian Buran vehicle which made one successful unmanned flight to and from orbit before it was retired.  I went on board one at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and noted its chief difference from the shuttle – it has an engine, again like the X37B.

A further X37B launch took place this week, with its purpose unspecified, though since the vehicle has already proved it can stay in orbit for many months, many suppose that espionage is part of its mission. The technology is quite unlike the CST-100 capsule Boeing is developing for NASA, a vehicle designed to take 7 astronauts and make a parachute landing on the ground rather than water.  All of the three companies are developing technologically different solutions, ones that draw on the experiences of previous space exploration vehicles. It all means that a very exciting time is coming up for manned spaceflight.


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