Monday, November 28, 2022


Astronomy for RVers – The new (private) space race

By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory

Private companies are leading the way back to space

Let’s face it. Since the end of the Apollo missions in 1975, America has been in a space rut. Don’t get me wrong – NASA has done a fantastic job with an ever-declining budget sending robotic science missions into the solar system over the last 45 years, but public excitement for space dropped off dramatically when we stopped sending people into the void. I think that is all about to change with the advent of private space companies and their recent successes.

Falcon Heavy on launch pad. Wikipedia. Click for larger image.

Let’s take a quick look at who is in the game and their company goals. For this article I am going to focus on American companies, specifically SpaceX, Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic, because they are far in the lead. There are, however, several smaller or non-American ventures in the game that we shouldn’t lose track of as things progress.

SpaceX is arguably the world leader in this race. SpaceX is a privately owned American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company based out of Hawthorne, California. It was founded in 2002 by renaissance man, and my personal hero, billionaire Elon Musk. Although Mr. Musk has many interesting business ventures currently underway – Tesla Motors, The Boring Company, Solarcity and Neuralink, to name a few – for the purposes of this article we will focus on SpaceX.

In a very short time SpaceX has gone from being the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit (the Falcon I), to launching the world’s biggest rocket into orbit and returning major components back to the launch pad for reuse (Falcon Heavy). Reusability has become the watchword in the aerospace industry now because it has the promise of making spaceflight one-tenth the cost of what it was in the past. SpaceX’s focus is primarily on space transportation, getting satellites into orbit, delivering supplies to the international space station, and soon to be launching people into near-earth orbit and beyond.

Musk’s stated goal is to get people to Mars and enable a Mars colony so humans can become a multi-planet civilization. In 2017, Musk unveiled a completely redesigned space launch system called the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, which will be the largest rocket in human history and will be fully reusable. It is planned for Mars launch in the early 2020s. BFR will also be capable of reaching any of the planets in the solar system and/or making intercontinental flights anywhere on the planet in under 30 minutes. Wow … just Wow.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifts off. Wikipedia. Click for larger image.

Blue Origin is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington. Headed up by billionaire Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin plans on sending space tourists into sub-orbit in the New Shepard rocket by the end of 2018 – for $250,000 for a 10-minute flight. New Shepard is also a fully reusable space craft – the booster lands vertically like the Falcon 9, and the crew capsule lands by parachute and retro-rockets on land. New Shepard is in late development now and one of the boosters has had four successful launches and landings already.

Blue Origin is also developing a second spaceflight system called New Glenn, which will be capable of low earth orbit delivery of supplies and satellites. New Glenn is scheduled for testing in late 2020.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo makes its first appearance. Wikipedia. Click for larger image.

Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company within the Virgin Group. It is developing commercial spacecraft and aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists and suborbital launches for space science missions. Founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson in 2004, Virgin Galactic isn’t launching its rockets in the conventional manner. Unlike most spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo will be strapped to its mother-ship, WhiteKnightTwo, a custom-built carrier aircraft, and then dropped at high altitude. Only then will the rocket fire, boosting the spacecraft the rest of the way into space.

Virgin Galactic has been plagued by technical problems and setbacks which caused delay after delay. In 2014 a pilot-error-caused accident destroyed their first spaceship and killed one of the test pilots. Just a few days ago, on April 5, 2018, the “VSS Unity,” the second SpaceShipTwo craft, had its first successful supersonic test flight over the Mojave Desert. This was a 30-second rocket firing that accelerated Unity to a speed of Mach 1.87 and an altitude of 84,271 ft. (25,686 m), so maybe Virgin Galactic is back on track to take tourists into space. The ticket price for the experience (as of 2013) will be $250,000 and last about 2.5 hours from takeoff to touchdown, with only a few minutes actually in space.

Although I couldn’t find any information on watching Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic launches, you can certainly watch a SpaceX launch if you are anywhere near California or Florida.

Spaceflight Now publishes this worldwide Launch Schedule for the coming year, and NASA has helpfully published this “Best spots to watch” list for both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.     

Till next time … 
Clear Skies,
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory

Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!) 



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4 years ago

Hi Chris, great to see you back here again. Loved this article about the major private American space entrepreneurs! It’s truly a brave new world on the horizon. Take care of yourself!

4 years ago

Chris, glad to see you’re feeling good enough to be back writing this column again. Hope to see you out on the observing trail in the future.

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