Ever since the 1970s, space and spaceflight had become dreams that put itself into peoples heads. Active space programs of various nations had given the people increasing hope of their dreams about space, whether they were dreams of adventures, exploring, meeting aliens or simply living there.
The national space programs however were not designed for getting anyone other than specialists out there or do anything else besides research on Moon, Mars and Venus. People wanted more than to just be spectators and watch from the sidelines. Some wanted to be able to say that they had launched their own satellite, others that they had made a vacation up in orbit, or even on the Moon.
It was something the national space programs could not deliver, their interests and goals were different. The programs had started to conduct research, technological improvement and national security. Profane things such as vacations or ego trips were not on the list of priorities of the Space Agencies. All they could do was give people images and impressions of life in space and to indirectly make life on Earth more comfortable.
For some, dreams were never a hurdle and so daring visionaries and fortune seeking entrepreneurs took the bold step to find ways to offer privately financed spaceflight, independent from any nation.
This meant that not only did private companies need to develop launch vehicles, they also had to be cheap and reliable, as well as capable of carrying people into orbit without dangers to any hobby astronauts in for a vacation on Earth orbit.
Already in 1996 Peter H. Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, its objective to advance mankind through competition. The Foundation called for the development of a suborbital spacecraft that could be reused and encouraged a large number of companies, developing various spacecraft, to rise up to the challenge. By 2003 Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites completed the challenge with the SpaceShipOne.
The X Prize competition also spurred others into action, who had long since dreamt of reaching space. Two of these were Elon Musk and Larry Page. Musk was the founder of multiple companies, such as Tesla Motors which worked on electric cars using superconducting batteries and electric motors, and Paysafe, a GlobalNet payment service. Page had founded the Google Cooperation with Sergey Brin, running a GlobalNet search engine and Advertising service. Both had come together during a meeting to talk about Google acquiring Paysafe in 2000 and had discovered their common dream of space.
In 2002 Musk and Page founded Space Expeditions Technologies Incorporated, shortened to SpaceX Inc., with the explicit goal to develop a cheap method to put payloads and people into space. To this end, they managed to hire a number of , largely young, aerospace engineers from several aerospace companies, who had already worked on rockets, even a few Brazilian engineers from OTRAG among them, using the challenge of developing a completely new launch vehicle to draw them away from their old jobs.
Musk and Page invested two hundred million dollars of their private funds into their company, and by 2004 SpaceX Inc. was ready to begin with the development of their first rocket, the Peregrine I, and the construction of the first privately owned space launch complex near Brownsville, Texas after acquiring the permission of the FAA.
The Peregrine I was not only meant to be a completely new rocket, but also to use a newly developed pressure fed engine, using a High Test Peroxide and liquid methane fuel mix to ease handling, reduce environmental problems and enable a relatively simple engine design. It was also a test of methods needed to design the real goal of SpaceX Inc., a Big Dumb Booster.
The first Peregrine I was launched from the Brownsville Launch Complex on September 3 2006, and true to the words of Musk and Page, carried a satellite of the OSCAR series, privately funded, designed and built by radio amateurs all over the United States. The launch however was not completely successful as an error in the guidance system sent the rocket into a different trajectory and placed the payload into a decaying orbit.
The next two launches of the Peregrine I were not not nearly as successful with one rocket being destroyed by a faulty engine and the other failing with a not working second stage. Only the fourth launch on November 12, 2007 reached its intended orbit. The following launches of the Peregrine were all successful and SpaceX Inc. could focus on the Peregrine II.
A larger version of the original Marlin engine, the Marlin II, was used to power the Peregrine II, which used a Big Dumb Booster approach to to its fullest effect. SpaceX Inc. had learned a lot from the Peregrine I and was able to increase the performance of the original Marlin I engine and scale it up sufficiently so that five engines were able to lift the nearly 1900 tonne rocket from the launch pad.
The Peregrine II was a three stage design and used a constant diameter of 5.5 meters for all three stages to reduce the need for diameter changing interstages and reduce the manufacturing costs.
In the end the Peregrine II was able to launch a payload of up to 36 tonnes into orbit and nearly 7 tonnes into a geostationary transfer orbit.
At the same time as the Peregrine I began to be used to carry small payloads into orbit and the Peregrine II was under development, SpaceX Inc. approached Scaled Composites and Burt Rutan to design a space plane that could be carried into space by the Peregrine II.
Rutan was especially eager for the project and decided to make use of the knowledge and experience he had gained during the design of SpaceShipOne. Named Griffin by Rutan and Musk, the new space plane shared the unique feathered reentry system of SpaceShipOne, though with allowances and safety margins in the form of an actively cooled heat shield.
The Griffin had its own fuel supply and used two RL10 B-2 engines, allowing the over 36 tonnes spaceplane to boost itself into its final orbit after separation from the third stage of the Peregrine II and carry a payload of up to four tonnes and up to fifteen astronauts, in a cargo variant up to eight tonnes of payload and two astronauts or in a crew transport variant up to thirty astronauts.
For safety reasons, the interstage fairing between the Griffin and the third stage of the Peregrine II contained a solid rocket booster to push the space plane to safety, should the launch vehicle fail during any part of the ascent.
The docking system of the Griffin was something of a problem for SpaceX Inc. and Scaled Composites. They wanted to be able to provide docking capabilities for a multitude of stations, but would have to deal with no less than four different docking standards, used by the different national space programs.
Thankfully both NASA and ESA were willing to provide information on their docking ports. This in turn made it possible for SpaceX Inc. to design a docking port that was able to dock with both ESA’s and NASA’s ports. After realizing the improvement and benefits of this ‘International Docking Port’, both NASA and ESA agree with SpaceX Inc. to put the general design into the public domain gaining respect for SpaceX Inc. for a positive influence on commercial spaceflight with this design and as sporting to competitors.
In 2009 the Peregrine II was ready for its first launch and other than with the Peregrine I, this first launch happened without a problem, delivering a South African scientific satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit. The following three launches were also successful and launch number five in early 2011 carried an unmanned Griffin spaceplane, loaded with a number of dummies to simulate a crew as well as a dummy payload.
After three orbits around Earth it returned into the atmosphere, slowing down faster in the upper atmosphere due to the feathered reentry profile and had to experience a lower heat load. It then successfully landed at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California.
The first manned flight of the Griffin happened on November 4, 2011, piloted by former NASA and Space Force astronaut Kevin Kregel. This first manned flight of a commercial spacecraft was fully successful, proving that it was possible for a private and commercial entity to develop a space plane and fly it successfully.
On a much smaller scale was the Mockingbird launch vehicle. Based on a 1994 study at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for a ballistic target drone and developed by Downscaled Launch Vehicles LLC, the Mockingbird missile was perhaps the smallest fully orbital capable launch vehicle ever designed and built. Not only that, it was also a Single Stage To Orbit design with the ability to reenter the atmosphere and be used multiple times.
Much like the Peregrine missiles of SpaceX Inc., the Mockingbird made use of a High Test Peroxide and kerosene engine, though in this case it was cheaper and more readily available JP-5 instead of the RP-1 commonly used for rockets.
With a diameter of 1 meter and a height of just 5 meters, the Mockingbird had a net weight of less than a hundred kilogram and a gross weight of about one and a half tonnes. This limited the available payload of the launch vehicle to just ten kilograms, though it was more than enough to launch small satellites, such as the increasingly popular Cubesats.
Development of the Mockingbird began in 2003 and the first flight happened in 2006, just two weeks after the first flight of the first Peregrine I, thought it was just a suborbital test flight of the vehicles systems. The Mockingbird attained orbit only on April 1, 2007, returning after releasing a Lawrence Livermore Cubesat.
DLV continued to develop the Mockingbird into a small scale launcher family and eventually began to sell entire launch vehicles to private and commercial entities, as well as several national space programs.
Additionally DLV was approached by the US Space Force, who realized that the Mockingbird had another use as a low cost ground-to-orbit weapon. As it was fueled by storable propellants, it could be kept ready for a long time. Used on a trajectory going into the opposite direction of a target in orbit, the Mockingbird was viable as a Kinetic Kill Vehicle, meaning that it could destroy a target, like a Polyus weapons platform, purely with its impact.
The new weapon system was the BSM-12 Thrasher, a Mockingbird with an extended control system, without a heat shield and a tungsten carbide or depleted uranium tip. A derived version, the ESM-12 Trembler, was developed for use in space. The Mockingbird and the BSM-12 were SSTOs and fully capable of attaining orbit with a Delta-V of more than 9 kilometers per second. The ESM-12 was also equipped with an engine optimized for vacuum use, increasing its Delta-V past 10 kilometers per second. While intended to be used as KKV, it was also equipped with a selfdestruction charge to spread the damage after the terminal guidance phase.
A third startup in the new area of commercial spaceflight was The Rocket Company LLC, founded by aerospace engineer Patrick Stiennon and aerospace consultant David Hoerr. What made The Rocket Company unique was that the launch vehicle they developed was already described in a book written by Stiennon and Hoerr, incidentally named ‘The Rocket Company’, about the challenges of a fictional group of investors to build a low-cost, reusable, Earth-to-orbit launch vehicle.
They had even gone as far as patenting the rocket itself after publishing the book in 2005. In 2006, Stiennon and Hoerr were approached by Peter Diamandis on behalf of a group of investors that believed that the DH-1 launch vehicle in the book was viable for cheap access to space.
Having already done a good amount of the conceptional work for their book, it was now to make it reality.
The DH-1 launch vehicle itself was unique as were its company and its history, as it was the first launch vehicle where both stages were designed to be reusable and piloted, rather than controlled by a computer. The first stage was also equipped with four turbofan engines to make return to its launch site easier. The second stage was able to carry about 2200 kilograms of payload additional to an astronaut. A second version of the second stage was able to carry up to four astronauts with ejection seats or up to twenty without and was equipped with an International Docking Port.
By refueling a modified second stage of the DH-1, it was even possible to have it fly to the Moon, land, deliver its payload and then return to Earth. This was due to the design and its unique launch trajectory, which gave the upper stage a delta-V of about eight kilometers per second. Theoretically it was even possible to go to Mars on a one-way trip.
The actual design of the rocket and the manned systems were two separate challenges and there was a good number of problems during the design and prototyping phase, postponing the first launch of the DH-1 prototype to January 3, 2012 of a launchpad on the Brownsville Commercial Spaceport.
Like Mockingbird LLC, but opposite to SpaceX Inc., The Rocket Company LLC aimed to sell the entire launch vehicle, the unique launch pad design and ground crew and astronaut training to its customers rather than being simply a launch service. Effectively the DH-1 was marketed as a ‘Manned Space Program in a can’ and reached a number of private, commercial and national customers.
With several cheaply designed and built launch vehicles and easy and equally cheap manned access to space, other opportunities presented themselves for other groups.
The Virgin Group, owned by Sir Richard Branson, gained its latest subsidiary in 2004 in the form of Virgin Space. Initially Virgin Space worked with Scaled Composites on a larger version of the SpaceShipOne for suborbital flights, but once SpaceX Inc. approached Scaled Composites and Rutan for the Griffin spaceplane in 2006, Branson put the project ‘SpaceShipTwo’ on hold, being more interested to market actual flights into space, rather than suborbital hops.
Branson supported the development of the Griffin and stepped in as investor for Scaled Composites, giving them a slightly larger budget to get the work done on the space plane.
The very real possibility of getting access to space with the Griffin, offered another business angle for Branson and Virgin Space. The Griffin was meant to be able to dock to any European and US space station and as such it would be possible to dock it to something like a hotel in space.
To get a space station into space and run it, meant bigger investments and to have the actual hardware to make it happen. Virgin Space inquired at EuroSpace in 2008, an aerospace joint venture of Dassault, Messerschmitt Bölkow-Blohm, De Havilland-Hawker and Aerospatiale, to acquire a Columbus space station Module to form the base of a space hotel and Cook modules to expand on it.
EuroSpace, who was bound by contracts with ESA and the European Union, had no immediate answer, even though they were very interested in selling the needed hardware, even if it had to be modified for the use in tourism.
Noting that he could very well place all of their eggs into one basket, Virgin Space also inquired at Lockheed, Martin Marietta and Boeing for space station modules of the Cislunar Infrastructure Development Program.
The modules were tried and true, tested in space since the mid 1970s and had evolutionary been improved on, eventually going as far as turning the state-of-the-art technologies of their initial construction years into off-the-shelves technology.
It raised political problems however, as these modules had never been intended for use by commercial or private entities, even though some research in space was done for a number of companies. The three big suppliers of the stations were bound by trading laws. While Virgin Space essentially just bought space on the Griffin spaceplane of an american company, SpaceX Inc., the actual sale of entire space station modules was prohibited as they still fell under several confidential laws and acts.
Several senators, who incidentally were involved in either of the three big US aerospace companies, put forward the notion to allow the sale of these space station modules, even if in the form of earlier versions that didn’t include the latest hardware.
By March 2009 the legislators had finalized the Commercial Space Infrastructure Act, allowing American companies to sell their hardware abroad, and only to friendly nations, be it space station modules or launch vehicles. The Saturn Common Core family however would remain a purely american project.
A month later, ESA and the European Union also greenlighted the sale of hardware to commercial and private entities, though they also kept back the Theia launcher family, though ESA offered the launch of high mass payload with the Theia Heavy.
Virgin Space now was free to mix and match. Using the Columbus module was a base and CIDP modules to expand it, Virgin Space created the first commercial space station, Virgin One, though she was only launched in 2012, when the Griffin spaceplane became available for use.
Branson opened Virgin One with a massive advertisement gag, inviting several British celebrities for a one week vacation in space, using the SpaceX Inc. Griffin. It was also the first time since the death of George Harrison, that Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon performed together. Lennon commented that he loved the feeling of weightlessness and not being bound to his wheelchair. Another celebrity, Brian May, guitarist of Queen and Professor for astrophysics at the Liverpool John Moores University, gave a Red Special as a gift to Branson, stating that he wanted the guitar to remain on Virgin One. Yet the most important performance was done by David Bowie, who sang ‘Space Oddity’, before they all returned to Earth.
Also in 2012, after observing The Rocket Company, Branson decided that the DH-1 would be the way to get Virgin Space their own space launch capacity. Three DH-1 launch vehicles were purchased by Virgin Space with one of them outfitted to carry up to ten passengers in relative comfort, one to run supplies and one for eventual journeys through cislunar space. The Rocket Company needed until late 2017 to deliver the four DH-1 launch vehicles in Virgin Space colors.
But that did not mean that the SpaceX Inc. Griffin became a second choice for Virgin Space. The Griffin was a very capable spacecraft and could carry a higher payload and more passengers than the DH-1.
Virgin Space was followed by a number of similar startup companies, offering space tourism, or, in the case of Bigelow AstroHab, space stations.
Another area of commercial and private investment into space in the first two decades of the 21st century was the space mining business. Again the cheap launch capabilities offered by 2012 allowed other adventurous minds to seek more wealth in space, or to search for other ways to realize mankind future in space.
Mining asteroids or the Moon would provide mankind with a mass of resource that were needed to produce entire space stations or spacecraft directly in space, without needing to launch every single item from Earth.
Rapid Manufacturing systems, sometimes called 3D printing, were slowly making their way onto companies, not only to create prototypes, but also in larger scale production. In space this was of greater importance than on Earth, as it would be possible to feed the machines with, for example, a fine metal powder and getting a complete metal part out of the machine without the need of large scale smelting and casting, something no one had even tried in space.
One of the first space mining and manufacturing companies was Planetary Mining & Manufacturing, another project spearheaded by Peter Diamandis and supported by a number of already illustrious faces of the infant private space economy, like Elon Musk, Larry Page or Robert Bigelow.
The first goal of PM&M was to slowly build a spacecraft that would approach one of the Near Earth Objects that had been discovered by the Asteroid Patrol, which was thought to be a C or B Type asteroid, and mine it for water. The water could then be sold in Earth orbit and turned into propellants. PM&M hoped to eventually be able to mine more than just water and build up a space dock and sell space borne construction services.
Larger dreams resurfaced, as people remembered the book ‘The High Frontier’ by Gerard O’Neill. Massive solar power stations in orbit and with them places for construction crews, in the form of equally massive space habitats seemed to be just a decade or two away.
Another set of entrepreneurs had noted the problem of orbital debris and garbage, that garbage contained valuable metals, devices and in the case of used up rocket stages, could even be equipped with working rocket engines.
For this the DH-1 was the vehicle of choice as it could be launched, operate for several days to rendezvous with a piece of debris and remove it from orbit, before returning home to sell the valuable materials.
One of these companies interested in orbital debris was Orbital Debris Handling of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The company made the headlines in 2016, when their first mission to remove debris picked up a two year old Indian weather satellite in a case of mistaken identity. They only realized their mistake when they had already taken the satellite apart to sell its components. Orbital Debris Handling was forced to file for bankruptcy after bein sued for compensation by India.
This resulted in a large political headache for everyone involved, as several nations called for international treaties and regulation of orbital salvage.
Another area was the servicing of existing satellites, as many satellite communication companies still needed to replace their satellites when they ran out of reaction mass for their orbital maneuvering systems or due to damaged subsystems. In the early 21st century satellites however were not equipped to be serviceable, so the business of satellite service largely had to wait until satellites were developed that could be serviced.
To the four big established national space programs the commercial launch vehicles and other services were seen as not much of a rival. Considering the threat of orbital debris and the possibility of collisions with active satellites, the potentially growing traffic into orbit and from orbit could become a problem. For this the International Civil Aviation Organisation began to look for way to regulate it, by potentially integrating it into existing air traffic regulations, considering that orbital launches and reentries went through the atmosphere.
For NASA, the Peregrine was seen as a complement for existing launch services, though the Saturn Common Core family had seen evolutionary improvements, which had increased its payload. Additionally, new production methods and the high demand for the Saturn CC launch vehicles as well as the Titan IIIC and its successor the Titan IV allowed the companies involved to mass produce both launch vehicles, up to twenty Saturn CC-11 or ten Saturn CC-32 per year, and up to thirty Titan V.
Additionally the Ames Research Center was close to creating the US answer to the Chinese contra-grav system, which would allow to double the payload of the Saturn CC, effectively halving the launch cost per kilogram.
While the Griffin was a new and more advanced design, the Crew Transport Vehicle, in use since the mid 1970s, had also seen improvements during the decades of service and was cheaper than the Griffin. Only the number of astronauts that could be transported by the Griffin was of interest, but neither NASA nor the Space Force actually had any need for such a high passenger transport capacity, lacking any destination for that many astronauts. The transport version of the Griffin was considered for a while, but here conventional means with a Titan IV was cheaper in the long run.
Only the DH-1 was seriously considered by NASA and the US Space Force as both crew transport vehicle, launcher for small payloads and as emergency rescue vehicle. NASA acquired the first two DH-1 launch vehicles, with the US Space Force buying the two after that.
Europe and ESA weren’t especially interested in the SpaceX Inc. Peregrine launch vehicles or Griffin. Much like NASA, ESA had its own family of launch vehicles, which did better than the Peregrine, and also was close to producing their own contra-grav system.
And again the Griffin was considered to be too large to be of any use for ESA, lacking any real destination to carry as many passengers, and resupply transports were cheaper with conventional means for ESA.
ESA eventually decided to buy three DH-1 launch vehicles, having one permanently ready at Kourou as rescue vehicle, while the other two were used to augment the logistics to Columbus.
Neither the Soviet Union, nor China showed any interest in the western commercial developments.
The Peoples Republic of China had access to a contra-grav system, reducing launch costs already, while their SSTO space plane replaced conventional capsules and was more versatile to move taikonauts and freight to the Tiangong 3 Complex.
The Soviet Union on the other hand was completely unimpressed. Again they were already working on a counter-grav system, mostly using espionage to keep up with the United States and Europe, while their launch vehicles were long since mass produced and used engines that were more advanced their western equivalents.