Big companies are starting to permeate all areas of spaceflight, from the most spectacular private launches to the smallest details. A modified version of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant will even hitchhike on a future NASA trip around the moon. Other space missions chartered by the ultra-rich are on the agenda. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also planning to put his colossal 400-foot-tall Starship rocket – destined to eventually reach Mars – into Earth orbit for the first time.
As in years past, federal regulators will be grappling with what their role can and should be in this new era.
Here’s a look at what to expect.
SpaceX, the child star of the commercial space age, was eager to launch a full-scale version of its Starship rocket on its first orbital test flight.
The launch would be crucial. Starship promises to surpass any rocket ever built, including the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon in the last century.
(NASA is also launching its own new rocket this year – a test mission for the upcoming lunar landing called Artemis 1 – which will use a different rocket that also promises to outperform the Saturn V.)
After a few high-altitude test launches in the first half of 2021 of the upper spacecraft, the company has assembled its first full-scale Starship rocket – with a gargantuan rocket thruster that promises to propel the spacecraft into orbit.
Musk had indicated that the company was ready to take off this test flight as early as July of last year.
But the second half of 2021 was full of hang-ups. The Federal Aviation Administration, which authorizes commercial rocket launches, was conducting an environmental assessment to examine the impact of launching such a massive rocket from part of rural Texas. A public comment period in October brought out the voices of many residents strongly opposed to the idea
as good as some fervent supporters who weren’t necessarily from the area
Public comment participants were allowed to connect from anywhere. And while most people spoke in favor of letting the project go ahead, people who identified themselves as living near the SpaceX launch site in South Texas were mostly opposed, according to one. pointing
run by Joey Roulette, then reporter at The Verge.
Although SpaceX initially planned to get the green light by the end of 2021, according to the FAA, the EA will continue until at least February 28, 2022.
The agency cited
“High volume of comments submitted” and “discussions and consultation efforts with consulted parties” as reasons for the delay.
Orbital tourism and astronaut launches
With its Starship program in limbo, SpaceX has kept its astronaut launches, conducted in partnership with NASA, roughly on schedule.
And there is more to come. Astronauts who flew to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule are expected to return in April, with a new crew
of four are expected to be launched aboard their own Dragon capsule to replace them in the same month.
With the blessing of NASA, SpaceX is also free to sell Dragon flights to anyone who can afford it. The company plans to do just that, following its Inspiration-4 2021 mission with a four-person mission chartered by Houston-based startup Axiom that will take three businessmen and a former astronaut
to the International Space Station.
Plans for other SpaceX tourist flights
in orbit are also in the works, although firm plans and launch dates have not been locked.
The opportunities for hitchhiking in orbit could also expand this year if Boeing brings its Starliner spacecraft into service.
Boeing has been hired alongside SpaceX to develop a crew-worthy spacecraft capable of transporting professional astronauts to the ISS and, if the company so chooses, well-heeled tourists. But Boeing has been besieged by numerous test and development blockages. Starliner was recently pulled from the launch pad after issues with its propulsion system were discovered shortly before a scheduled test flight of the vehicle. The company now says that the first unmanned test launch can take off
is May 2022.
Branson, Bezos and suborbital space tourism
The space companies of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have worked for years to develop spacecraft capable of taking paying customers on short supersonic trips to the edge of space. In 2021, the two billionaires made their own journeys to the edge of space aboard their respective spacecraft.
Their two flights ended with no apparent problem, with the men exiting their spaceship outfitted in custom flight suits and beaming for the cameras.
Bezos’ successful launch in July catapulted the company into a busy rest of the year, spent flying high profile personalities as “guests of honor,” meaning they didn’t. not had to pay for the tickets. 2022 promises to bring even more activity to the space tourism company, called Blue Origin, although the company has yet to announce any flight or passenger dates for the coming year.
But Virgin Galactic faces significant delays. A report from New Yorker
revealed that the warning lights in the cockpit went out during Branson’s flight and the spacecraft had traveled outside of its designated airspace for 41 seconds. The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded all flights pending a review, which concluded in september
and gave the green light to Virgin Galactic. Still, the company is delaying the start of commercial services until at least the third quarter of 2022, citing unrelated technology upgrades.
Work problems are already arising
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has faced its own controversies, though none have indicated specific safety issues with its rocket or spacecraft.
Rather, a group of 21 current and former employees co-signed a letter alleging that the company operates a toxic work environment where “professional dissent” is “actively suppressed.” Blue Origin responded to the allegations saying it had “no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind”.
The trial has raised enough concern that the FAA is launching a review. But CNN Business reports also revealed that FAA investigators assigned to the task were crippled by a lack of legal protection for whistleblowers in the commercial space flight industry.
Emails obtained by CNN Business showed the review was closed even though investigators never had a chance to speak with the people who anonymously signed the whistleblower’s essay.
The situation has once again highlighted the complexity of the federally designated “learning period” of the commercial space industry – a designation that prohibits regulators from implementing certain new rules
or exercising the same supervisory powers as it does for other industries.
That designation is set to expire in 2023, and the FAA has indicated lawmakers are monitoring the situation and considering a change. This could also soon be the subject of a report by the Government Accountability Office. Emails obtained by CNN Business show that the GAO has contacted the FAA for more information on its Blue Origin probe.
Meanwhile, allegations about Blue Origin’s workplace culture – which have been echoed in another whistleblower essay on SpaceX
– put the commercial space industry under close scrutiny.
A great void cluttered and empty
Similar questions about how to regulate outer space in the age of commercialization arise on the international stage. With SpaceX and others setting up thousands of satellites for new space ventures, and a recent satellite destruction test carried out by the Russian government
– Concerns about overpopulation in Earth orbit are growing.
There have been numerous recent and high-profile events highlighting the stakes of the problem: SpaceX Starlink satellites nearly collided with the Chinese space station, the International Space Station had to maneuver out of the path of the debris to numerous revivals and dead rockets fell out of orbit uncontrolled.
Groups within the United Nations have worked for decades to update international treaties governing the use of outer space. So far, they have been largely unsuccessful. But the effort is once again gaining attention with a November 1 resolution that created an open-ended working group that will assess “current and future threats to space operations, determine when behavior can be considered irresponsible, “will make recommendations on possible standards, rules and principles of responsible behavior”, and contribute to the negotiation of legally binding instruments; – including a treaty to prevent “an arms race in space” “, according to a recently published article written by two experts in space policy.