San Jose, Calif. -- Hans Koenigsmann is one of dozens of engineers attempting to convert the dream of building vehicles for a commercial space industry into a thriving business. Using off-the-shelf technologies, the vice president of avionics for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is helping design the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spaceship, which could someday replace the space shuttle.
"There has never been a successful privately financed liquid-fuel [space] vehicle to date. There have been many attempts, but all have failed," said Koenigsmann. "I like the challenge."
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX; El Segundo, Calif.) and another company, Rocketplane Kistler (Oklahoma City), are sharing $500 million over four years as part of a NASA contract to get private industry to start building the vehicles NASA needs to maintain the International Space Station. The two companies and another half-dozen like them hope to use combinations of government and private funds to create spacecraft that could serve commercial as well as civil purposes.
Established giants, including the likes of Cisco Systems Inc., are gathering around these pioneers in search of new opportunities. Some believe they are opening a portal to a Jetsons-like era, while others see the efforts as part of a long history of attempts that have fizzled.
Like many of its competitors, SpaceX aims to conduct trial unmanned launches in the next two years. The trials could lead to flights carrying as many as seven people. The spaceliners would eventually depart eight times a year for the Space Station and commercial destinations still on the drawing board. "Our goal is to make space exploration cheaper and more reliable," said Koenigsmann. "I don't have a hard budget, but we hope to have recurring flight costs of just a few million dollars and initial development costs [for avionics] of less than $25 million."
A big part of the challenge is "building up the engineering team," which needs to double its staff of 35 EEs in 2007, he added.
Engineers have their pick of pioneering employers in the emerging astrospace industry. Besides its NASA project, Rocketplane Kistler is working on the Rocketplane XP, a four-person modified Lear 25 jet. The company hopes the jet will take people into short suborbital flights 66 miles above the Earth starting in 2008 at a cost of about $200,000 each.
Burt Rutan, who won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for developing a working commercial spacecraft, is designing a second version at his company, Scaled Composites LLC (Mojave, Calif.). It is due to fly by 2009. The company has a contract with Virgin Galactic, which hopes to use the vehicles to become one of the first commercial space carriers.
A handful of companies are at various stages of designing other commercial spacecraft.
"In the next couple years, we will see the first flights of commercial vehicles carrying passengers and payloads into suborbital space. These vehicles weren't even being considered a few years ago," said Jeff Krukin, who is executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation (Nyack, N.Y.), a group lobbying for a commercial space industry.
Rick Sanford, director of the global space initiative at Cisco Systems, is tracking as many as six opportunities that could emerge in the next two years to put communications systems into new commercial spacecraft or the ground stations that will manage them. "The opportunity for Cisco is to take what we are doing terrestrially and create partnerships to take these protocols into space for next-generation global services," said Sanford.
The 15-person Cisco team has been active since 1999. It participated in the launch of a commercial router from Russia in 2003 that is still conducting tests linking a single spacecraft with its ground station.