One Giant Leap for Private Space Exploration

It is with some caution that I write today about the future of space exploration because it is something I could easily become emotionally attached.

I am not a devout follower of Star Trek in all its variations. Nor am I much of a science fiction reader (I prefer science fact to science fantasy). But I have seen the movie Gravity three times, and I’ve read just about everything Arthur C. Clarke wrote, including his extraordinarily predictive (so far) novels 2001, 2010, 2061 and 3001. I consider Clarke’s works to be carefully based on science fact.

I am one of those people who believe that humans have an essential role in space exploration and that they can achieve knowledge that robots roving around moons and planets cannot. I believe that exploration is built into our DNA. And I know for a fact that Earth will one day be consumed by its own sun, and thus, if humans are to survive as a species, they will have to find their way to another livable world.

Until now, rockets, space travel and exploration beyond Earth’s atmosphere have been almost exclusively financed by military forces and governments.

A mission like that used to cost NASA about half a billion dollars… Now the cost is 50% of that…

In the United States, civilian space exploration is administered through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although space, and especially the space in which humans place machines in orbit around Earth, has become internationalized, the United States has overwhelmed the world in rocketry and exploratory technologies and satellites.

Although the Chinese will walk on the moon more than half a century after Neil Armstrong did in 1968, the Russians never have. Although even the Indians joined the “big five” (U.S., Russia, the European Space Agency, France and Japan) space adventures as early as 1980, the efforts of the other four space-faring countries put together cannot match what NASA has achieved, much less what the Defense Department, the CIA and who knows what other government agencies have achieved.

But in recent years, NASA’s budgets have been cut and it has fallen to a plague of bureaucratic inefficiency. Its Mars manned missions have been devastated, and it doesn’t even have a spaceship that can ferry astronauts into space. We rely primarily on the Russian Soyuz to do that for us — at $63 million per seat per flight now and $70 million per seat after 2015.

Wide-eyed space fans like me feel that the promise that grew out of the Apollo space program in the 1960s has been shattered.

But hold on! In 2013, the Earth moved.

A quiet revolution that has been both slowly and suddenly developing in places like Dulles, Va., and Hawthorne, Calif., is changing everything.

Dulles is the headquarters of Orbital Sciences… and Hawthorne is the headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.

Both were, at their inception, a laughable concept — private rocket companies.

You’ve probably heard of SpaceX because it is founded and guided by one of the greatest entrepreneurial minds of our age — Elon Musk.

SpaceX is truly remarkable. In less than a decade, it has come from a dream in Musk’s mind to developing a successful rocket — the Falcon 9 — and a successful spacecraft — the Dragon — that can deliver payloads to the International Space Station.

A mission like that used to cost NASA about half a billion dollars every time it launched the Space Shuttle. Now the cost is 50% of that, thanks to these two private rocket companies.

SpaceX’s Falcon/Dragon technology successfully docked with the Space Station in May 2012. Then it repeated the feat in October 2012, delivering 800 pounds of supplies, including ice cream and Silly Putty. It made huge headlines. And last March, SpaceX delivered 1,200 pounds of supplies to the Space Station after some scary hours when the Dragon spacecraft’s thrusters failed following separation from the Falcon 9 rocket.

What didn’t make headlines much at all was the same mission last September by Orbital Sciences. Its brand-new rocket, Antares, took its brand-new spacecraft, Cygnus, and docked with the Space Station too — flawlessly.

Orbital delivered about 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and material to the Space Station in a demonstration run. Then the spacecraft was filled with trash and sent into a destructive orbit that vaporized it about 46 miles over New Zealand.

Afterward, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said:

“We are delighted to now have two American companies able to resupply the station. U.S. innovation and inspiration have once again shown their great strength in the design and operation of a new generation of vehicles to carry cargo to our laboratory in space. Orbital’s success today is helping make NASA’s future exploration to farther destinations possible.”

When Orbital recently announced its third-quarter financial results, CEO David W. Thompson said that in 2013, Orbital Sciences would average one space mission or one product delivery every week.

As it turns out, this quiet company that has been in the space business since 1982 — against all odds and despite legions of naysayers who have claimed that private rocket companies just can’t compete in this arena — is so busy designing rockets, building spacecraft, designing and building satellites and launching them into space that it actually needs SpaceX to help deliver some of its goods.

In a period of less than 18 months, these two private rocket companies have demonstrated that they can do the basic stuff of getting things into space that only governments used to be able to do. This is so revolutionary it is difficult to overstate its importance. And in that same time period, both companies have become so successful at the technologies involved that they are making headlines within the space community every week.

For purposes of this article, there’s one key factor that separates the two — Orbital is a publicly held company. Its stock trades on the New York Stock Exchange as ORB, and there is about $1.5 billion worth of shares out there.

Although there are constant rumors about SpaceX going public even as early as this year, last July, Elon Musk wrote that SpaceX would not go public before it landed a spaceship on Mars. Musk passionately believes humans should colonize Mars, and when he passionately believes something (for example, that people should drive electric cars like his Tesla), he sets out to make it happen.

Best regards,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. I could go on for 20,000 words describing the differences and similarities between SpaceX and Orbital Sciences and what the future holds for the space industry overall. And in today’s issue of Tomorrow in Review, I gave readers an opportunity to access my full write-up on the ongoing revolution in rocketry, as well as other investment spaces and opportunities I’ve uncovered. If you’re not already a reader, you can sign up for FREE right here.

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