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January 10, 2014

Future for Commercial Space Endeavors Looks Bright

by Mil Arcega

Space — the final frontier.

Once the purview of cash-rich governments, launching rockets into space has become increasingly commonplace as demand for communications satellites and space-based imaging services grow. Today, space is a $200 billion a year industry, an example of how partnerships between government and the private sector are helping to lower costs — and in the process expand our understanding of the world.

As the year begins the business of space looks bright — booming, in fact — for U.S.-based Orbital Sciences Corporation, which launched its Antares rocket on Thursday to deliver the first of eight cargo shipments to the International Space Station.

Orbital Sciences is just one of two American firms hired by NASA to deliver supplies to the manned space research outpost orbiting 400 kilometers above earth.

Commercial rocket pioneer Arianespace, which launched its first satellite three decades ago, says 2014 has all the makings of a record year.

Clayton Mowry, who heads the U.S. arm of the private European space consortium, describes the growth as virtually exponential.

“Last year we launched eight times, and we’re looking to actually break our record of 10 launches this year," said Mowry. "We’re hoping, right now, our planning is to conduct 13 launches this year."

Mowry says the increased frequency of rocket launches is driven in part by rising demand for space-based technologies, from ultra-high definition broadcasts to satellite broadband.

And yet, despite the need for more commercial satellites, the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011 has had a dampening effect in the space community.

Janice Starzyk at International Launch Services chairs educational initiatives at the Washington Space Business Roundtable.

“The shuttle program shutting down was a huge, huge set of layoffs in the industry," said Starzyk.

But even as NASA scales back, other countries are rushing to fill the void.

In December, China became the third country to land a spacecraft on the moon, while India launched its first communications satellite earlier this month.

In Denmark, a pair of space enthusiasts are trying to prove space flight can be affordable. Using open source designs and public donations, Kristian Von Bengtson, co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals, hopes to fulfill a childhood dream of launching a homemade rocket 100 kilometers into space.

"Everybody believes that space flight, manned space flight, can only be done with billions of dollars and it has to be government financed," said Von Bengtson. "I hope we can show that you can do it on a shoestring budget. You can pretty much do it yourself."

Von Bengtson's goal is to launch a manned rocket into space by 2020.

But according to Starzyk, Space Business Roundtable's goal in 2014 is to encourage more students to consider careers in space.

"Actually, it's a major problem in most countries of getting young people interested in studying engineering, specifically aerospace engineering," she said.

Starzyk says as demand for rocket launches grow, so will demand for fresh talent.

Participation in the organization's space academy program has soared over the last three years, proving once again that when it comes to space, the sky is the limit.