Eight hot commercial space projects

NASA budget money to help spark commercial space industry

While the recently passed National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010, included $1.6 billion for commercial crew and cargo programs, was not nearly the amount President Obama wanted (about $6 million initially), the move was generally seen as a huge nod toward developing commercial space projects. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the authorization "launches a commercial space transportation industry." Indeed there are a number of interesting commercial space projects underway. Here we take a look at some them.

The Russians are coming: In what will be an ambitious project, two Russian space companies said they want to build what they called the world's first Commercial Space Station. According to Orbital Technologies and Rocket and Space Corporation Energia , the proposed seven-person space station will be utilized by private citizens, professional crews as well as corporate researchers interested in conducting their scientific programs onboard the world's first commercially available human spaceflight platform.

Rocket masters: If there was one project that symbolizes the commercial space effort it could be the research and development going into Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket's next launch is slated for November after a very successful initial launch in June. While there are still at least three test flights to go, the plan is that the rocket and its Dragon capsule will ultimately be the first commercial spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit. SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to bring cargo to the International Space Station.

FAA buy-in: The Federal Aviation Administration took yet another step in bolstering the nascent commercial space industry by granting $500,000 to fund projects that develop and expand the infrastructure for outer space transportation. The FAA in the past year has taken a variety of steps to bolster commercial space flight including setting up a Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation for the development of space transportation technologies such as launch and traffic management applications and setting orbital safety standards. The agency has also streamlined the environmental review part of permit applications for the launch and/or reentry of reusable suborbital rockets.

Boeing, Boeing gone: Aerospace giant Boeing and outer space tourism proprietors Space Adventures teamed up today to offer low Earth orbit (LEO) flight services onboard Boeing's future commercial crew spacecraft. Under this agreement, Space Adventures will market passenger seats on commercial flights aboard the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft. Boeing's CST-100, which is under development, will be able to launch on a variety of different rockets, including Atlas, Delta and Falcon.

Inflatable space stations: Bigelow Aerospace is building what it calls "expandable habitats," which are inflatable spacecraft that would act as large, less costly space stations. The company's planned first full-scale module is the Sundancer, targeted for launch and orbit in 2014. It can handle three to six occupants depending on the mission. The company has a number of key partnerships including NASA and Boeing.

NASA influence: Earlier this year NASA moved quickly to advance its role as commercial space entrepreneur by awarding $50 million to five companies that could help design and build future spacecraft that could take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA said the money and the research will be managed by and are part of are part of its recently established $500 million Commercial Crew and Cargo Program that looks to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective capabilities to transport cargo and eventually crew to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

NASA part II: NASA delivered some punch to its Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program recently by awarding about $475,000 to two companies looking to make a big sub-orbital space splash. NASA said the funds will help the companies demonstrate the flight capabilities of new vehicles to provide recoverable launch and testing of small payloads going to "near-space," the region of Earth's atmosphere between 65,000 and 350,000 feet. The awards will fund two flights this fall and one this winter of Armadillo's Super-Mod vehicle from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The Masten Space Systems' Xaero vehicle will make four flights this winter from the Mojave Spaceport in California.

The main destination: While government-backed visits to the International Space Station will mostly be the norm, the multinational group that runs the show wants to expand the pace of commercial and government space-based research. The ISS is mostly complete and nearly 150 experiments are currently under way on the station, and more than 400 experiments have been conducted since research began nine years ago. These experiments already are leading to advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells and the development of more capable engines and materials for use on Earth and in space. This week NASA and the other ISS contributors set target launch dates for the last planned space shuttle flight, STS-134 on Endeavour, will be Feb. 27 and the Automated Transfer Vehicle-2 will be Feb. 15.