SAN JOSE, Calif. — Emerging efforts to forge a business out of exploring space are making progress, but the sector still has -- literally -- a long way to go, according to a panel of experts.
Private sector companies are now actively resupplying the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost of prior government services. The next big milestone will come when NASA awards contracts for its Orion manned space vehicle programs.
Speaking of the ISS resupply missions, NASA Ames Research Center director Simon "Pete" Worden said "this stuff is going really well.
"The space economy is emerging and we government guys have to get used to the fact we are not going to make it all happen by ourselves," Worden said at the New Space event here.
He pointed to startups such as Moon Express in Silicon Valley, work on nano-satellites at the University of Michigan that generated a Kickstarter campaign, and efforts from Tel Aviv to Shanghai.
"You don't think of Lithuania as a space power, but they launched some satellites, and I met their prime minister a few weeks ago." Worden said. "I was in Jordon recently. There's great talent around the world."
The US Air Force is evaluating commercial Falcon rockets, said Daniel Mosqueda, Director of Air Force programs for the Universities Space Research Association. "I can't discuss some of the companies we're working with because some of that is proprietary, but we are getting launch costs down to millions instead of hundreds of millions," he said.
The Air Force also is mulling opportunities to let private companies launch some of its military payloads into space. "That would have never happened in past, but it's happening now," Mosqueda said.
Budget cuts in government space programs "were one of the best things that happened -- it forced us to figure out what to do, and now we are looking much more closely at lower-cost launch and delivery systems," he added.
The commercial space movement has come a long way since it was perceived as a bunch of "tin-foil-hat-wearing twinkies," said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. But companies need to be "steel eyed" about safety.
"We still have to demonstrate success. You won't make money if you hurt people," he said.
In recognition of that fact, Richard Branson said last year that he and his children will be passengers on the first commercial flight to the edge of space by his company, Virgin Galactica, scheduled for later this year.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times